The Secrets of Physics and Chemistry taken for supernatural things

 [This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010.  Copyright as such.]


It is possible to allege against my reasoning the secrets of physics and chemistry, which produce an infinity of wonderful effects, and appear beyond the power of natural agency. We have the composition of a phosphorus, with which they write; the characters do not appear by daylight, but in the dark we see them shine; with this phosphorus, figures can be traced which would surprise and even alarm during the night, as has been done more than once, apparently to cause maliciously useless fright. La poudre ardente is another phosphorus, which, provided it is exposed to the air, sheds a light both by night and by day. How many people have been frightened by those little worms which are found in certain kinds of rotten wood, and which give a brilliant flame by night.

We have the daily experience of an infinite number of things, all of them natural, which appear above the ordinary course of nature, but which have nothing miraculous in them, and ought not to be attributed to angels or demons; for instance, teeth and noses taken from other persons, and applied to those who have lost similar parts; of this we find many instances in authors. These teeth and noses fall off directly when the person from whom they were taken dies, however great the distance between these two persons may be.

The presentiments experienced by certain persons of what happens to their relations and friends, and even of their own death, are not at all miraculous. There are many instances of persons who are in the habit of feeling these presentiments, and who in the night, even when asleep, will say that such a thing has happened, or is about to happen; that such messengers are coming, and will announce to them such and such things.

There are dogs that have the sense of smelling so keen that they scent from a good distance the approach of any person who has done them good or harm. This has been proved many times, and can only proceed from the diversity of organs in those animals, some of which have the scent much keener than others, and upon which the spirits which exhale from other bodies act more quickly and at a greater distance than in others. Certain persons have such an acute sense of hearing that they can hear what is whispered even in another chamber, of which the door is well closed. They cite as an example of this, a certain Marie Bucaille, to whom it was thought that her guardian angel discovered what was said at a great distance from her.

Others have the smell so keen that they distinguish by the odor all the men and animals they have ever seen, and scent their approach a long way off. Blind persons pretty often possess this faculty, as well as that of discerning the color of different stuffs by the touch, from horse-hair to playing-cards.

Others discern by the taste everything that composes a ragout, better than the most expert cook could do. Others possess so piercing a sight that at the first glance they can distinguish the most confused and distant objects, and remark the least change which takes place in them.

There are both men and women who, without intending to hurt, do a great deal of harm to children, and all the tender and delicate animals which they look at attentively, or which they touch. This happens particularly in hot countries; and many examples might be cited of it; from which arises what both ancients and moderns call fascination (or the evil eye); hence the precautions which were taken against these effects by amulets and preservatives, which were suspended to children's necks.

There have been known to be men from whose eyes there proceeded such venomous spirits that they did harm to everybody or thing they looked at, even to the breast of nurses, which they caused to dry up—to plants, flowers, the leaves of trees, which were seen to wither and fall off. They dare not enter any place till they had warned the people beforehand to send away the children and nurses, new-born animals, and, generally speaking, everything which they could infect by their breath or their looks.

We should laugh, and with reason, at those who, to explain all these singular effects, should have recourse to charms, spells, to the operations of demons, or of good angels. The evaporation of corpuscles, or atoms, or the insensible perspiration of the bodies which produce all these effects, suffice to account for it. We have recourse neither to miracles, nor to superior causes, above all when these effects are produced near, and at a short distance; but when the distance is great, the exhalation of the spirits, or essence, and of insensible corpuscles, does not equally satisfy us, no more than when we meet with things and effects which go beyond the known force of nature, such as foretelling future events, speaking unknown languages, i. e., languages unknown to the speaker, to be in such ecstasy that the person is beyond earthly feeling, to rise up from the ground, and remain so a long time.

The chemists demonstrate that a sort of restoration or resurrection of animals, insects, and plants, is possible and natural. When the ashes of a plant are placed in a phial, these ashes rise, and arrange themselves as much as they can in the form which was first impressed on them by the Author of Nature.

Father Schol, a Jesuit, affirms that he has often seen a rose which was made to arise from its ashes every time they wished to see it done, by means of a little heat.

The secret of a mineral water has been found by means of which a dead plant which has its root can be made green again, and brought to the same state as if it were growing in the ground. Digby asserts that he has drawn from dead animals, which were beaten and bruised in a mortar, the representation of these animals, or other animals of the same species.

Duchesne, a famous chemist, relates that a physician of Cracow preserved in phials the ashes of almost every kind of plant, so that when any one from curiosity desired to see, for instance, a rose in these phials, he took that in which the ashes of the rose-bush were preserved, and placing it over a lighted candle, as soon as it felt a little warmth, they saw the ashes stir and rise like a little dark cloud, and, after some movements, they represented a rose as beautiful and fresh as if newly gathered from the rose-tree.

Gaffard assures us that M. de Cleves, a celebrated chemist, showed every day plants drawn from their own ashes. David Vanderbroch affirms that the blood of animals contains the idea of their species as well as their seed; he relates on this subject the experiment of M. Borelli, who asserts that the human blood, when warm, is still full of its spirits or sulfurs, acid and volatile, and that, being excited in cemeteries and in places where great battles are fought by some heat in the ground, the phantoms or ideas of the persons who are there interred are seen to rise; that we should see them as well by day as by night, were it not for the excess of light which prevents us even from seeing the stars. He adds that by this means we might behold the idea, and represent by a lawful and natural necromancy the figure or phantom of all the great men of antiquity, our friends and our ancestors, provided we possess their ashes.

These are the most plausible objections intended to destroy or obviate all that is said of the apparitions of spirits. Whence some conclude that these are either very natural phenomena and exhalations produced by the heat of the earth imbued with blood and the volatile spirit of the dead, above all, those dead by violence; or that they are the consequences of a stricken and prepossessed fancy, or simply illusions of the mind, or sports of persons who like to divert themselves by the panics into which they terrify others; or, lastly, movements produced naturally by men, rats, monkeys, and other animals; for it is true that the oftener we examine into what have been taken for apparitions, nothing is found that is real, extraordinary, or supernatural; but to conclude from thence that all the apparitions and operations attributed to angels, spirits or souls, and demons are chimerical, is carrying things to excess; it is to conclude that we mistake always, because we mistake often.





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