Examination of the Apparition of a pretended Specter

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


Business having led the Count d'Alais to Marseilles, a most extraordinary adventure happened to him there: he desired Neuré to write to our philosopher (Gassendi) to know what he thought of it; which he did in these words: the count and countess being come to Marseilles, saw, as they were lying in bed, a luminous specter; they were both wide awake. In order to be sure that it was not some illusion, they called their valets de chambre; but no sooner had these appeared with their flambeaux, than the specter disappeared. They had all the openings and cracks which they found in the chamber stopped up, and then went to bed again; but hardly had the valets de chambre retired than it appeared again.

Its light was less shining than that of the sun; but it was brighter than that of the moon. Sometimes this specter was of an angular form, sometimes a circle, and sometimes an oval. It was easy to read a letter by the light it gave; it often changed its place, and sometimes appeared on the count's bed. It had, as it were, a kind of little bucklers, above which were characters imprinted. Nevertheless, nothing could be more agreeable to the sight; so that instead of alarming, it gave pleasure. It appeared every night whilst the count stayed at Marseilles. This prince, having once cast his hands upon it, to see if it was not something attached to the bed curtain, the specter disappeared that night, and reappeared the next.

Gassendi being consulted upon this circumstance, replied on the 13th of the same month. He says, in the first place, that he knows not what to think of this vision. He does not deny that this specter might be sent from God to tell them something. What renders this idea probable is the great piety of them both, and that this specter had nothing frightful in it, but quite the contrary. What deserves our attention still more is this, that if God had sent it, he would have made known why he sent it. God does not jest; and since it cannot be understood what is to be hoped or feared, followed up or avoided, it is clear that this specter cannot come from him; otherwise his conduct would be less praiseworthy than that of a father, or a prince, or a worthy, or even a prudent man, who, being informed of somewhat which greatly concerned those in subjection to them, would not content themselves with warning them enigmatically.

If this specter is anything natural, nothing is more difficult than to discover it, or even to find any conjecture which may explain it. Although I am well persuaded of my ignorance, I will venture to give my idea. Might it not be advanced that this light has appeared because the eye of the count was internally affected, or because it was so externally? The eye may be so internally in two ways. First, if the eye was affected in the same manner as that of the Emperor Tiberius always was when he awoke in the night and opened his eyes; a light proceeded from them, by means of which he could discern objects in the dark by looking fixedly at them. I have known the same thing happen to a lady of rank. Secondly, if his eyes were disposed in a certain manner, as it happens to myself when I awake: if I open my eyes, they perceive rays of light though there has been none. No one can deny that some flash may dart from our eyes which represents objects to us—which objects are reflected in our eyes, and leave their traces there. It is known that animals which prowl by night have a piercing sight, to enable them to discern their prey and carry it off; that the animal spirit which is in the eye, and which may be shed from it, is of the nature of fire, and consequently lucid. It may happen that the eyes being closed during sleep, this spirit heated by the eyelids becomes inflamed, and sets some faculty in motion, as the imagination. For, does it not happen that wood of different kinds, and fish bones, produce some light when their heat is excited by putrefaction? Why then may not the heat excited in this confined spirit produce some light? He proves afterwards that imagination alone may do it.

The Count d'Alais having returned to Marseilles, and being lodged in the same apartment, the same specter appeared to him again. Neuré wrote to Gassendi that they had observed that this specter penetrated into the chamber by the wainscot; which obliged Gassendi to write to the count to examine the thing more attentively; and notwithstanding this discovery, he dare not yet decide upon it. He contents himself with encouraging the count, and telling him that if this apparition is from God, he will not allow him to remain long in expectation, and will soon make known his will to him; and also, if this vision does not come from him, he will not permit it to continue, and will soon discover that it proceeds from a natural cause. Nothing more is said of this specter any where.

Three years afterwards, the Countess d'Alais avowed ingenuously to the count that she herself had caused this farce to be played by one of her women, because she did not like to reside at Marseilles; that her woman was under the bed, and that she from time to time caused a phosphoric light to appear. The Count d'Alais related this himself to M. Puger of Lyons, who told it, about thirty-five years ago, to M. Falconet, a medical doctor of the Royal Academy of Belle-Lettres, from whom I learnt it. Gassendi, when consulted seriously by the count, answered like a man who had no doubt of the truth of this apparition; so true it is that the greater number of these extraordinary facts require to be very carefully examined before any opinion can be passed upon them.





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