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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ACCIDENT
THE more we master the forces of nature, the more do our chances of accidents multiply, even as the tamer's dangers increase in proportion to the number of wild animals which he "puts through their tricks" in the cage. Formerly, we avoided the contact of these forces as much as possible; to-day, they have gained admittance to our household. And so, notwithstanding our more prudent and peaceable manners, it happens to us more often than to our fathers to look pretty closely upon death. It is probable, therefore, that many of those who read these notes will have felt the same emotions and have had occasion to make similar remarks.
One of the first questions that arise is that of presentiment. Is it true, as many assert, that from the very morning we have a sort of intuition of the event that threatens the day? It is difficult to reply, inasmuch as our experience can bear only upon events which "might have turned out worse," or which, at least, have had no serious results. It seems natural, therefore, that those accidents which were to be free from consequences should not have stirred the deep waters of our instinct beforehand; and I believe it to be true that they do not even ripple their surface. As for the others, which entail a more or less speedy death, their victims seldom possess the strength or lucidity required to satisfy our curiosity. In any case, all that our personal experience is able to gather on this subject is very uncertain; and the question remains.
One fine day, then, we start at early dawn, by motor-car, bicycle, motor-cycle, in a skiff or steam-boat: it is immaterial to the event that is preparing; but, to make the picture more definite, let us take, by preference, a motor-car or motor-cycle, which are wonderful instruments of affliction and which put the fiercest questions to fortune in the great game of life and death. Suddenly, for no reason, at the turn of the road, in the very middle of the long, wide highway, at the top of a descent, here or there, on the right or on the left, seizing the brake, the wheel, the steering-handle, unexpectedly barring all space, assuming the deceptive and perfectly transparent appearance of a tree, a wall, a rock, an obstacle of one sort or another, stands death, face to face, towering, unforeseen, huge, immediate, indubitiable, inevitable, irrevocable, and, with a click, shuts off the horizon of life, which it leaves without outlet. . . .
Forthwith, an eager and interminable scene, contained within half a second, sets in between our intelligence and our instinct. The attitude of our intelligence, our reason, our consciousness, by whatever name you please to call it, is extremely interesting. It decides instantaneously, sanely and logically that all is irretrievably lost. Yet it displays neither madness nor terror. It pictures the catastrophe, with all its details and consequences, exactly; and it realises with contentment that it is not afraid and that it preserves its lucidity. Between the fall and the collision, it has time to rest, it reflects, it diverts itself, it finds leisure wherein to think of all manner of other things, to call up memories, to make comparisons, trifling and accurate observations: the tree which we see through death is a plane-tree, there are three holes in its patterned bark. . . .
It is not so fine as the one in the garden. . . The rock on which our skull will be broken is veined with mica and very white marble. . . . Our intelligence feels that it is not responsible, that we have nothing to reproach it with; it is almost smiling, it enjoys an ambiguous sensation of pleasure and awaits the inevitable with a tempered resignation mingled with prodigious curiosity.
It is evident that, if our lives had only the intervention of this indolent, this too-logical and too-clearsighted dilettante to rely upon, every accident would be fated to end in disaster. Luckily, warned by the nerves, which whirl, lose their heads and bawl like terrified children, another figure bounds upon the stage, a rugged, brutal, naked, muscular figure, elbowing its way and seizing with an irresistible gesture such remnants of authority and chances of safety as come within its reach. We call it instinct, the unconscious, the subconscious: it matters not what we call it. Where was it? Where does it come from? It was somewhere asleep or else busied with dingy and thankless tasks deep down in the primitive caverns of our body. Once it was that body's uncontested king, but, for some time since, has been relegated to the lower darkness as an ill-bred, ill-dressed, ill-spoken poor relation, a troublesome and often disagreeable witness of our original misfortune. We no longer think of it, no longer have recourse to it, save in the desperate seconds of our supreme anguish. Fortunately, it has a decent nature, is utterly unselfish and bears no grudge. Instinct knows, besides, that all those ornaments from the height of which we look down upon and despise it are ephemeral and frivolous and that, in reality, itself is the sole master of the human dwelling. With a glance that is surer and swifter than the tremendous onrush of the peril, it takes in the situation, then and there unravels all its details, issues and possibilities and, in a trice, affords a magnificent, an unforgettable spectacle of strength, courage, precision and will, in which unconquered life flies at the throat of unconquerable death.
This champion of existence, upstarting like the shaggy savage of the fairy-tales who comes to the rescue of the disconsolate princess, works miracles in the strictest, the most precise sense of the word. Above all, under pressure of necessity, it has one incomparable prerogative: it knows nothing of deliberation, of all the obstacles which it raises, all the impossibilities which it imposes. Instinct never accepts disaster, not for a moment admits the inevitable and, when on the point of being smashed to atoms, acts cheerfully against all hope, as though doubt, anxiety, fear, discouragement were notions absolutely foreign to the primitive forces that quicken it. Through a granite wall it sees nothing but safety, like a cranny of light; and, by dint of seeing it, creates it in the stone. It does not abandon the hope of stopping a mountain that is rushing down upon it. It thrusts aside a rock, darts upon a wire, slips between two columns which were mathematically too close together to admit its passage. Among trees, it chooses infallibly the only one that will yield because an invisible worm has gnawed its root; amid a cluster of vain leaves, it discovers the one strong branch that overhangs the abyss; and, in a heap of sharp flints, it is as though instinct had prepared in anticipation the bed of moss and ferns that is to receive the body. . . . The danger once past, reason, stupefied, gasping for breath, unbelieving, a little disconcerted, turns its head to take a last look at the improbable. Then it resumes the lead, as of right, while the good savage, that no one dreams of thanking, returns in silence to its cave.
Perhaps it is not surprising that instinct should save us from the great habitual and immemorial dangers: water, fire, falls, collisions, animals. There is here, evidently, a long custom, an ancestral experience to explain its skill. But what amazes me is the ease, the quickness wherewith it acquaints itself with the most complicated, the most unusual inventions of our intelligence. We have only, once and for all, to show it the mechanism, the use and the purpose of the most unexpected machine, however foreign and useless to our real and primitive needs: instinct understands; and, f rom that moment, in an exigency, it will know the machine's last secrets and its management better than does the intelligence which constructed it.
That is why, let the instrument be as new, as recent or as formidable as it will, we can safely say that, in principle, there is no such thing as an inevitable catastrophe. Our unconsciousness is always alive and equal to every imaginable situation. Between the jaws of the vice contained in the power of the mountain or the sea, we can, we must look for a decisive movement on the part of our instinct, which possesses resources as inexhaustible as those of the universe or of nature, upon whose stores it draws at will.
And yet, if the whole truth be told, we no longer all have the same right to rely upon its sovereign intercession: It never dies, never sulks, is never mistaken; but many men banish it to such depths, so rarely permit it to catch a glimpse of sunlight, lose sight of it so entirely, humiliate it so cruelly, pinion it so closely that, in the madness of their dire need, they forget where to look for it. They have not the material time in which to warn it or to release it from the dungeon wherein they have chained it; and, when, at last, full of goodwill, armed with its tools, it hurries up to the rescue, the mischief is done, it is too late, death has completed its work.
These inequalities of instinct, which are connected rather, I suppose, with the promptness of the appeal rather than with the quality of the assistance, appear in every accident. Place two motorists in two parallel, ineludable and exactly identical cases of danger: an inexplicable touch of the wheel, a leap, a twist, a turn, a sheer quiescence, a spell of some kind will save the one, whereas the other will go his normal and wretched way and be smashed to pieces against the obstacle. Of the six persons in a car, all strictly involved in the same fate, three will make the only possible, illogical, unforeseen and necessary movement, while the three others will act with too much intelligence in the wrong direction. I once witnessed one of those surprising manifestations of instinct, or nearly witnessed it; for, although I arrived after the accident, at least I gathered the throbbing impressions on the spot, among the injured. It was on the descent from Gourdon, the rugged little village, well known to excursionists from Cannes and Nice, perched on a precipitous rock, over two thousand feet in height, to escape the Barbary pirates. It is inacessible on every side; no thoroughfare leads to it, save a terrible zigzag way, which runs down between two ravines. A tilted cart, overloaded with eight persons, including a woman carrying her child not two months old, was descending this dangerous road, when the horse took fright, ran away and darted towards the abyss. The passengers felt themselves rushing to their deaths; and the woman, anxious to save the child and obeying an admirable impulse of maternal love, flung it, at the supreme moment, from the other side of the cart, where it fell on the roadway, while all the others disappeared in the precipice bristling with murderous rocks. Now, by a miracle which is not unusual where human lives are at stake, the seven victims, caught up in brushwood, in all manner of boughs, escaped with insignificant scratches, whereas the poor little child died where it fell, with its skull broken by a stone on the road. Two contrary instincts had here struggled for the mastery; and that one with which a glimmer of reflection had probably been mingled had made the more awkward movement of the two. You will speak of good and bad luck. These mysterious words are permissible, provided it be understood that they are applied to the mysterious movements of our unconsciousness. It is, in fact, preferable, whenever the thing is possible, to throw back the source of a mystery within ourselves: we thus limit to that extent the inauspicious field of error, discouragement and impotence.
We immediately ask ourselves whether we are able, if not to perfect our instinct, which I persist in believing perfect, at least to recall it closer to our will, to unloose its bonds, to restore its original freedom. This question would demand a special study. In the meantime, it appears fairly probable that, by drawing habitually and systematically closer to material forces and facts, to all that which, in a word that expresses enormous things, we call nature, we can diminish by so much daily the distance which instinct will have to cover in order to come to our aid. This distance, as yet inappreciable in savages and in simple and humble men, increases with every step taken by our education and civilisation: I am persuaded that it could be proved that a peasant or workman, even if he be the less young and the less active, if overtaken by the same disaster as his squire or employer, has two or three chances more than the latter of escaping safe and sound. In any case, there is no accident of which the victim is not, a priori, in the wrong. It is meet that he should say to himself, what is literally true, that any other, in his place, would have escaped; consequently, the majority of the risks which those around him take remain forbidden to himself. His unconsciousness, which here blends with his future, is not "in form." Henceforth he must distrust his luck: From the point of view of the great dangers, he is a minus habens, as they used to say in Roman law.
For all this, when we consider the lack of consistency of our body, the inordinate power of all that surrounds it and the number of perils to which we expose ourselves, our luck, compared with that of other living beings, must needs appear prodigious. In the midst of our machines, our various apparatus, our poisons, our fires, our waters, all the forces which we have more or less mastered, but which are always ready to rise in revolt, we risk our lives twenty or thirty times oftener than the horse, for instance, the ox or the dog. Now, in a street or road accident, in a flood, an earthquake, a storm, a fire, in the fall of a tree or a house, the animal will almost always be struck by preference to the man. It is obvious that the latter's reason, his experience and his more prudent instinct preserve him to a great extent. Nevertheless, one would say that there must be something more. Granting equal risks and hazards and allowing for intelligence and a more skilful and certain instinct, the fact still remains that nature seems to be afraid of man. She religiously avoids touching that frail body, surrounds it with a sort of manifest and unaccountable respect and, when, through our own arrogant fault, we oblige her to hurt us, she does us the least harm possible.
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