Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of

[WE print, out of many similar communications, the following relations of personal experience, evoked by a curious paragraph in the Contributors’ Club in our June number. As the dreamers of strange dreams have notoriously no mercy in telling them, we think it best to warn intending visionaries that the present paper contains all that we shall be able to lay before our readers: they will therefore dream at their own risk. Those particularly interested may address the authors of the following paragraphs at Liverpool; Newport, R. 1.; The Dalles, Oregon; Andover, Mass.; Providence, R. I.; Brooklyn, N.Y., etc.]

— The question which your contributor asks in the June Atlantic, “What causes the recurrence of a certain kind of dream during a certain period?” is not easily answered. It would be easy to say, “The recurrence of similar conditions,” but that is merely restating the question. It is not probable that we shall ever have a complete science of dreams, because when we begin to observe and classify we must be wide awake. Dreams are of too subtle stuff. They easily elude analysis.

My own dreams, however, I can divide into three classes, and I have a theory which fits them exactly. It is this: Sleep comes down on us from above and submerges our faculties in the order of their excellence. In dreams of the first class the artistic sense is asleep, but all the other faculties are awake. In dreams of the second class the moral sense is submerged, and about all that remains active is the instinct of self-preservation and a tigerish love of blood ; both feelings which lie near the foundation of our nature. In dreams of the third class hardly the sense of personal identity is left; in fact, we are asleep down to protoplasm. It is true Coleridge composed Kubla Khan in a dream, but his sleep was not true sleep ; it was probably “ secondary coma,” induced by opium. You cannot prove anything against my theory by Coleridge. Was it not Cowper who awoke thrilled with a lyric he had composed in his sleep, which began, —

“ By heavens, I 'll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose ” ?

And it was an equally celebrated man who, under similar circumstances, could recall but two verses of a poem to youth. These were,—

“ Boys, boys, boys, boys,
You great and dangerous hobbledehoys.”

My first point, that the constructive imagination is the first faculty to go to sleep, I think may be considered established. We dream that we make eloquent speeches, or visit beautiful scenes, but if we can recall them they are destitute of all proportion and fitness.

In order to make my meaning clearer I will instance a specimen of each class of dreams, at the risk of inflicting a “ garrulous relation of visions.” They are given merely as scientific illustrations of my theory that sleep comes down like a cloud and obscures the higher faculties first. I would premise by saying that my dreams are never suggested by the subjects in which I have been interested when awake. The following belongs to the first class. The events are as distinctly impressed on my memory as if they were real.

I found myself riding leisurely on horseback on the road from the village to my father’s farm, when I became aware of a bright light behind me, and looking upward saw a large meteor, about one thousand feet in the air, moving slowly in the direction I was going. Presently a small, elderly man, also on horseback, joined me, and I mended my pace to keep up with him. He told me that he was from Boston; that he had foreseen the advent of the meteor, and in fact had followed it by short cuts for several hundred miles. I expressed surprise at the slowness of its motion, but he explained that its velocity was only apparent; that it had overtaken the earth with a motion the same in rate and direction as the earth had; and that though it seemed to be moving slowly it was in reality going very fast. I objected that when it came within the sphere of the earth’s attraction it must fall rapidly, under the influence of gravity. On this he looked at me benevolently, and said, half to himself, “Ah, yes, the old Newtonian error.” I have seen many times since the same benign expression on the faces of my Boston friends, when I felt that they were saying to themselves, “ It is interesting to find the old misconceptions surviving in the New York man.”

Meanwhile we reached the foot of a small hill on my father’s farm, where the meteor had struck the earth. There were congregated here my father, the tenant of the farm, the village lawyer, a well known horse-jockey, and several others. The Boston man said that he wished to buy the meteor, and that he was authorized to offer ten thousand dollars for it. To this my father agreed, remarking that it was a “ mighty good meteor, but no use to him.” The tenant claimed half of it as a natural product of the land ; but the lawyer said that it was clearly real estate, and was referring to a case in point decided by the court of appeals, when the tenant pulled out his lease and read the clause, “ And the said party of the second part, in addition to half of all crops of sanfoin, trefoil, and murdocks raised on said farm, shall receive to his own use, behoof, and benefit one equal and undivided moiety of all the aereolites and meteoric stones that may fall on said farm during said term.” The lawyer said, “That settles it;” but the Boston man said, with a decision born of knowledge, “ This is neither an aereolite nor a meteoric stone; it is a griffolith.” The horse-jockey stepped forward solemnly, and laying both hands on the stone burnt them badly. Drawing back hastily, he remarked, “ It is a nasty griffolith.” Two such authorities agreeing, the tenant made no further claim. The Boston man filled up a check on a form especially prepared for the purpose, headed “ Fera celestia naturæ,” and we dispersed well pleased, and glancing upwards for more griffoliths.

What I wish to emphasize in this dream is that all my instincts of justice and respect for law and reasoning powers were awake. The reverence which the New York mind feels for the Boston mind was also in full force. That, however, is one of the deeper instincts of our nature, and probably never sleeps.

I will give in as few words as possible a specimen of a dream of the second class : —

I was in the waiting-room of a small railway station in Belgium. Opening the door, I stepped directly into Utah. Here I joined a party of mining prospectors, consisting of several divinity students, in an advanced stage of intoxication, and a panther. We began tearing down the side of a mountain, the panther distinguishing himself by the energy with which he wielded his pick, his tail curling and quivering with excitement. We were in search of a gypsum bed, which we soon uncovered. It was securely boxed in rough hemlock boards. Desiring to own it wholly myself, I killed all my party by the simple method of jamming the top of my pick into their backs as they were bent over examining the find. By using my full strength I was able to double them up and drive them deep into the ground, thus dispatching them quickly and burying them in one motion. I then took possession of the coveted gypsum bed, and a similar series of absurdities and crimes crowded on one another, till I awoke. What I relate this nonsense for is to show that in a dream of this class not only is my perception of distance blurred, but also my sense of equity. I paid no attention to the fundamental principles of the mining code, though I had had practical experience of its absolute necessity as the only means of preserving the semblance of order in a camp. I deceived all my comrades, including the inoffensive and hard-working panther. Few men would be more averse to such a thing than I, and I can only plead that I was all asleep except the savage instincts of the primitive man.

In dreams of the third class, even these and the consciousness of personal identity are at rest. There is left only a vague consciousness of existence, — probably about what the mollusk feels when most awake.

If this classification does not fit the dreams of some people, 1 can only say that their sleep is not true sleep and their dreams are not true dreams. What they call sleep is probably abnormal hypnotic coma or imperfect lethargy, and what they suppose to be dreams are merely irregular, spasmodic mental action, unworthy of strict scientific classification.

— The most intimate connection exists between the mind and the body ; and not unfrequeutly some physical disorder or idiosyncrasy, of whose existence we may not be aware in our waking hours, makes itself felt in sleep, when the body is more susceptible of internal impressions. In a dream the condition of the physical organization reflects itself in the activity of the nervous system, as surrounding objects are mirrored upon the ruffled surface of the waters beneath; and these distorted images may serve as the index of the state of the physical system.

In these facts I think we may find the explanation of the first class of visions mentioned by the contributor writing of recurrent dreams. Why and whence the particular visions which he refers to I cannot tell, for “in sleep every man has a world of his own.” But I think that such indescribable impressions are frequently made upon the mind in childhood, as we know that they occur in delirium and insanity.

From my earliest years, during my childhood, I was haunted by a strange sensation in sleep, which I called “ falling off from the world;” and often now, when fatigued in body or mind, the impression returns. I am alone in space, and feel myself falling faster and still faster to some terrible unknown depth. I refer this sensation to a disordered state of the nervous system, consequent upon excitement or fatigue. 1 trace a resemblance, a sequence, between the “ vast, impalpable something ” “ moving onward in enormous airy billows,” the “ tall white-clothed figure,” and the “ shapes of armed men approaching with awful, silent tread.” The first vision gradually resolves itself into the second, and the second assumes the outline of the third, as, in the Arabian Nights, the white, shapeless cloud at length took form and became the huge genie. To fix the limit of such fancies is to set bounds to the imagination, a task impossible. In the child of excitable temperament the mental impressions during sleep are more grotesque; but these shadowy shapes assume more definite form in later years.

Concerning the recurrence of a certain dream during a number of years, to the exclusion of other forms of dreaming, 1 offer this explanation : A dream is any mental action in sleep of which we are afterward conscious. The more wild and fantastic the dream, the more vividly is it impressed upon the memory. The fact that it is thus impressed leads to its recurrence, especially when the dreamer relates his vision to another person. The readiness with which a train of thought recurs to the mind is proportionate to the frequency with which it is recalled. Hence, these visions tend to reproduce themselves.

I think that the nocturnal journeys mentioned by the contributor are of frequent occurrence in the experience of others. I know a physician who to long daily rides in the practice of his profession adds longer and more toilsome nightly journeys. Regularly, during the hours of sleep, as he drives his horses over almost impassable roads, his loud cries, urging them on or holding them back, give evidence of the nature of his dreams. In my own experience, I find that a day of hard labor, physical or mental, is quite often followed by nights of driving over fearful roads, or of plowing through stormy waters. In all these dreams the sense of imminent danger or impending trouble is always present. Our actual travels do not seem to affect the case.

Whence comes this sense of danger ? Indistinctness is a prevailing characteristic of our dreams. Certain features of the dream may stand out clearly from the rest, but in every vision there is a border-land of impenetrable mystery. In every human mind obscurity awakens an indefinable fear ; terror and dread overwhelm us when we wander through the dim and unexplored land of dreams. Reason is not with us to dispel our fears, and until we awake we struggle on, the prey of fancies which our own minds have created.

— In considering the psychology of dreams, a study as fascinating as its subject matter is elusive, theories are not wanting to explain what a recent contributor speaks of as the frequent recurrence of a certain kind of dream, when there was apparently nothing in his circumstances to impress the vision. That may be the very reason it came again. The first visit of the spectral familiar was due to some unnoticed cause such as leads to most of our meetings in the dead of night, — a story told, a word overheard, a suggestion that the consciousness hardly grasped; and having once come, its very strangeness made so strong an impression as to furnish excuse for repeated appearance. The more inexplicable a dream is, the more frequent its recurrence in many cases.

For months now the same story has been told me in dreamland, variously modified, but always alike in substance. It was a puzzle at first, and seemed utterly inexplicable, until I remembered a conversation held when riding, one morning, more than a year ago, with a cousin who had recently come to us on a visit from her Western home. She remarked, in that decided way happy wives have who consider marriage the chief end of woman’s existence, “ Susan Jane, you are making a great mistake in your life unless you decide to marry and have a home.” “But you would n’t have a woman marry for the sake of a home ? ” “ Why not ? I did n’t love

Theophrastus when I took him for better or worse, but now it would be hard to find a more devoted wife.” The idea flitted across my mind that this might have proved a dangerous game, but never came again into my waking thoughts till it had been recalled by a succession of dreams, each telling of the wretched, ruined home of my bright little cousin, and giving different reasons for it, but all agreeing in this, — that she alone was the one to blame for the unhappiness, and that she always bore reproach with silent pride. Sometimes the scene has been so vivid that I have said to myself, “ I shall have faith in the prophecies of dreams hereafter, for what I have repeatedly dreamed has now come true;” and the sober certainty of waking thoughts could hardly convince me that it was not a reality.

Another fancy that recurs with absurd pertinacity places me in Bremen, ready for a year’s roaming over Europe, but utterly without plan and without money. Although I never heard any one before The Atlantic contributor allude to having the same dream for long periods, it seems so natural that it can hardly fail to have been the experience of many. And now there is a strong temptation to ask sympathy or support for my little pet theory in regard to the moral lesson that may be learned from dreams. Do they not sometimes furnish a man with a clew to hitherto unsuspected traits of his character, suggest some foible, or reveal some hidden weakness ? When the conscience is removed for a little and imagination has full play, though she leads her victim into strange complications, does she not still leave him true to the instincts that have been prompted by passion and modified in their course by reason, so that her unregulated whims afford a hint of his real nature, as do the “ idle words ” by which he shall be judged ? Milton had more than one object in representing that when in sleep the fruit was offered Eve she " could not but taste.”

— The dream that recurs must frequently with me is a very disagreeable, exhausting one. The scene is an old, dark, high building, with many long, winding corridors and steep, rickety stairways. Through these corridors, up and down these stairways, stumbling, panting, breathless, I am chased by a hag who brandishes a long whip. She is ragged, with hideous teeth protruding from her jaws; her dark hair is flying; and she pursues me with a look of hate and uttering a gibberish not a word of which is intelligible, till I wake in an agony of exhaustion and terror; or rather I used to do so. Since I grew up I have learned to realize that it is “ my dream,” and can wake myself, but can never resist the impulse to keep on until I have reached a certain door. I always wake just as I throw myself frantically against that; it has never opened. Another dream is of flying, and is less frequent in its recurrence than the first one. The sensation is a delightful one. The scene always begins in a country church-yard. I begin by flying over the church many times ; then invariably fly into a building unlike any 1 have ever seen, but well adapted for flying; there are domes to fly up to, vaulted galleries, and much space. The feeling is one of perfect complacency at finding myself at these dizzy heights, though I always feel that some time I shall surely fall. I was not a nervous or timid child at any other time, but I have spent hours of suffering in the darkness from waking out of the clutches of the hag; and again have wakened with a thrill of delight, as though saved from some fascinating peril, after the flying dreams. About twice a year 1 have the former, and about once in two years the latter, dream. I have regarded the oft-repeated recurrence of these dreams as an idiosyncrasy of my own, as I never before knew any one confess to a similar experience.

— For about three years of my life, from eleven to fourteen, I scarcely passed a week without dreaming two or three times that I was living a kind of divided life. I seemed to know that I was in bed, and yet the real I was floating about the room near the ceiling in the form of several globes of incandescence. (I use the abstract noun because I was not always conscious whether the material was molten metal, glass, or simply gas.) The globes would circle round each other ; sometimes roll together like dewdrops, making a larger globe ; at other times separate into a countless multitude. The conviction was always present with me that if the whole would roll into one my soul would come back to me and all would be well ; but I never came to the point of realizing this happy consummation ; I constantly awoke in terror before the end came. The sense was so perplexing and so vivid that for a long time I absolutely dreaded the night, — I knew the same dream would come.

Then I think I had a year or two free from dreams of any kind. An illness something like a brain fever turned the current of my life altogether; but when dreams came again they came with provoking regularity. I know to an inch the exact spot where I was always standing when a big black dog leaped on me, and I could point out, I believe, the stone over which, night after night, I was accustomed to trip and fall most ignominiously, within a yard of a friendly door.

That form of dream, too, passed. The third and last that I can call at all regularly recurrent was even more perplexing, but more whimsical. 1 was at Cambridge, having taken my degree, but remaining in my college rooms, reading with private pupils, and holding the curacy of a church at a short distance from the place. I suppose the desire to settle down in some more home-like way had taken full possession of me. I was then, two or three times a week, in the habit of waking with the dream fresh in my brain that 1 had gone to the town where my lady-love dwelt, and had been in it two or three days without having called to see her. Incandescent globes and black dogs were “ not a circumstance ” to the trouble caused by this negligence. About three years of this last dream was enough for me : I banished that evil by marrying the lady.

— The contribution to the Club on the subject of dreams has awakened remembrances of my own early visions that have for some time lain dormant.

For years my dreams have been neither very agreeable nor distressing, — mere incongruities. But once they were of the same evil character as those your contributor describes, and for long periods dominated by some one ever-recurring terror. I can vividly recall the sharp chase that I almost nightly went through with, always to be seized and borne off by the same swift-footed fiend, — the very devil with horns and hoofs familiar to the imagination. Following this came the “ last day,” with all its horror of veritable flames. These were early dreams, and easily traced to injudicious instruction of some kind, from which it is so difficult to protect a child.

Another dream that troubled me sorely was that of being " taken up.” The interview with the policeman about the offense, of which I was wholly unconscious ; the final statement of that official that ignorance of the law made no excuse ; and the dénoûment, — my being marched off to indefinite imprisonment, — all played a part in this oft-repeated scene. This I think also easily accounted for in a child’s vague terror of the “ law ” as by him imperfectly understood.

But that strange dream of the “ procession ” described by the contributor, so nearly like my own, which I had before thought my own peculiar property, prompts me to ask, Whence came those dreadful figures that moved athwart the clouded consciousness of at least two children, in form and manner so strangely resembling each other ? My dream always began with an awful stillness of preparation. Every house was made ready against the approaching procession, which came from regions without the town. I always thought myself alone in an upper room, the house deathly still lest any one should betray his whereabouts. At length they came, terrible forms both in size and mien. Like that of your contributor, my place of refuge was beneath the window ; and there, in my dream, have I lain trembling with fright and pressing closely against the outer wall, only to be discovered at last from a window at the side. With the glance of fiery eyes meeting mine the vision reached its climax, and I awoke.

I am aware that I have only partly answered the question of your correspondent ; in fact, have asked another. If any one, however, could enlighten me as to the origin of this dream so full of torture, could suggest the story-book or nursery tale from which its details might have been drawn, I should be glad. The circus, with its formal entry, has sometimes suggested itself as the solution, and even more forcibly the parade of “ Antiques and Horribles ” that once so prominently figured in our Fourth of July festivities.

— I would like to add my testimony to what is an interesting subject of investigation. The recurrence of something differing from a dream I experienced many times during childhood. It was so similar to that reported as to be undoubtedly referable to the same physical condition. I heard but little talk of malaria in the hills of Eastern New York, but I remember there was suffering from fevers in the neighborhood. The vision or sensation was this : I saw a something, round, bright, and white, which expanded with indescribable rapidity, filling all space, extinguishing all earth and earthly existence, “ breaking the barriers of the heavens.” I seemed conscious of the moment when this expansion reached the limits of our solar system and passed on through stellar space, annihilating everything. “Now.”

1 said, “ there is only God and I.” When that instant of crushing, awful loneliness came, I awoke. There never seemed any sense of duration of time. The whole was like a lightning flash, with intense consciousness, of infinite extended space. In the recurrence of this dream the effect was precisely identical, but it has never visited me in later years. Though it is long since it came, the memory of it is now as a revelation of something hidden from me at all other times. The words eternity, immortality, infinity, have a meaning in the light of that memory inexplicable, which no creed or catechism ever taught me.

— My dream is peculiar, and yet I must believe that it is also that of many thousands of my fellow countrymen. I was in the war, and a participant in several of the largest battles in the eastern zone of operations. Much to my surprise, I emerged from it alive and unharmed, and was “ reabsorbed ” into civil life. Just how long it was after doffing the blue I cannot say, but presently I began to entertain a particular form of dream, that has appeared and reappeared at intervals during all the long years that have since elapsed. It is this: I find myself again a soldier, on the threshold of battle, and wonder how I got there. The scene and circumstances change with every dream. Sometimes we are waiting to be attacked ; at others aligning for advance, or perhaps acting as scouts or skirmishers, — but always with battle imminent. Now the most distressing part of this dream is the sense of finding one’s self in terrible danger without knowing how it came about. The actual circumstances of the old war are never recalled; it is always a new war I am engaged in. After a time the dream developed into a dream within a dream. For example, I would seem to say, “I have dreamed of finding myself in this situation a good many times, but, now it is no longer a dream, but a terrible reality.”

I used often to wonder, half superstitiously, whether this dream did not prefigure a renewal, at some time, of my army life, but as I am now drawing toward the close of the campaigning age I find the dream latterly giving me less and less trouble. But it all goes to show that war is terribly vivid, earnest, and real, and that the brain retains its images, and that the sensory nerves reverberate with its impressions for many a long year after it has ceased.

— A late number of some magazine — it seems to me that it was the Popular Science Monthly — contained a hint toward shaking off recurrent dreams of a painful character, which was boldly to meet, and even invite, the threatened danger or disagreeable occurrence forming the basis of the vision. As dreams usually come when we are near waking, we are often sufficiently conscious to exert a slight control over our ideas; hence, I believe the suggestion practicable. I have been troubled by two kinds of recurrent dreams, which have been mitigated by just such a course. Until young manhood I was the victim of imaginary falls, occurring at intervals of a week or so. I tumbled over terrific precipices, out of balloons, and from the tops of trees like those in California, but always, though alighting with a shock, which caused a nervous start, sinking into some soft material that arrested my progress without injury. Whether I struck on rocks, turf, or house-tops, 1 always fell on my feet, sank gently to my waist, and pulled myself out with little difficulty. I gradually acquired such a control over my wandering fancies that I was able to say, “ I am asleep, and therefore this fall will not hurt me.” Instead of struggling, I would allow myself to take the inevitable plunge, and by idly submitting to the force of gravitation I came to earth without a jar, or checked my flight in mid-air. The other form of persistent dream is of later occurrence, and takes the form of such a flight through space as would have delighted De Quincey. I have made few attempts to check this dream as yet, beyond getting back to earth when I have had enough of it, and rousing myself when there is in it a suggestion of vertigo. At first it was startling and awful, but after I had made sure of a safe return there was a kind of tremulous joy in thus casting loose from earth, and soaring off with the rush of a meteor into the solemn regions of chill and starlit space, passing the great lighted globes that wheel about the sun and comets wandering in measureless orbits. The joy of rapid motion, like that felt in riding in a locomotive cab, or coming down a gravity road, or plowing the billows in a trim yacht, is modified by the necessity of shooting along on my back, head first, so that I get nothing but celestial retrospects; and my advance into the starry regions is accompanied by the feeling that I may run my head against a big meteor, or drop upon Jupiter, Saturn, or into the horrific craters of the moon, like a meteor myself. When in a tranquil waking or dozing state I can repeat this dream by sheer force of imagination.

Physical causes and business perplexities largely influence our dreams ; hence, the gentleman to whom this is addressed — 1 take it that the contributor is of the male “ persuasion ” — may find that anxiety, ill success, late suppers, a hard bed, an uncomfortable position (such as lying upon the back), aching teeth, or some such matters are in part responsible for the sombre character of his dreams. Pain may induce recurrent dreams. During a severe inflammatory disease I was dosed with immense quantities of opium, but the visions caused by the drug were distorted by pain into such scenes of horror and occurrences of distress that their reality exhausted me to the point of death. Once only I was permitted a pleasant dream: A boundless and beautiful park extended on every side, and in the midst of it was set a marble palace, whose wings stretched to an immeasurable horizon and were lost in distance. Its front glowed with the warm red light of the setting sun, every one of its countless windows, as it reflected the luminary, shining like burnished gold. The entire sky was of the hue of red wine held to the light, and in this rich crimson great stars blazed and flashed like diamonds and emeralds. The memory of that scene is stronger than the memory of Niagara.

The same exercise of the will that checks a bad dream can sometimes secure a good one. 1 have on several occasions aroused myself from unpleasant dreams, and determined that the incidents going wrong should take such and such a course. Then, on my falling asleep again with this determination, events would come about much as I wished them.