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adding death of the authors, 1941

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Henri Bergson, Dreams, The Project Gutenberg March 17, 2007 [EBook #20842], First printing, April, 1914
Before the dawn of history mankind was engaged in the study of dreaming.
The wise man among the ancients was preëminently the interpreter of
dreams. The ability to interpret successfully or plausibly was the
quickest road to royal favor, as Joseph and Daniel found it to be;
failure to give satisfaction in this respect led to banishment from
court or death. When a scholar laboriously translates a cuneiform tablet
dug up from a Babylonian mound where it has lain buried for five
thousand years or more, the chances are that it will turn out either an
astrological treatise or a dream book. If the former, we look upon it
with some indulgence; if the latter with pure contempt. For we know that
the study of the stars, though undertaken for selfish reasons and
pursued in the spirit of charlatanry, led at length to physical science,
while the study of dreams has proved as unprofitable as the dreaming of
them. Out of astrology grew astronomy. Out of oneiromancy has
That at least was substantially true up to the beginning of the present
century. Dream books in all languages continued to sell in cheap
editions and the interpreters of dreams made a decent or, at any rate, a
comfortable living out of the poorer classes. But the psychologist
rarely paid attention to dreams except incidentally in his study of
imagery, association and the speed of thought. But now a change has come
over the spirit of the times. The subject of the significance of dreams,
so long ignored, has suddenly become a matter of energetic study and of
fiery controversy the world over.
The cause of this revival of interest is the new point of view brought
forward by Professor Bergson in the paper which is here made accessible
to the English-reading public. This is the idea that we can explore the
unconscious substratum of our mentality, the storehouse of our memories,
by means of dreams, for these memories are by no means inert, but have,
as it were, a life and purpose of their own, and strive to rise into
consciousness whenever they get a chance, even into the
semi-consciousness of a dream. To use Professor Bergson's striking
metaphor, our memories are packed away under pressure like steam in a
boiler and the dream is their escape valve.
That this is more than a mere metaphor has been proved by Professor
Freud and others of the Vienna school, who cure cases of hysteria by
inducing the patient to give expression to the secret anxieties and
emotions which, unknown to him, have been preying upon his mind. The
clue to these disturbing thoughts is generally obtained in dreams or
similar states of relaxed consciousness. According to the Freudians a
dream always means something, but never what it appears to mean. It is
symbolic and expresses desires or fears which we refuse ordinarily to
admit to consciousness, either because they are painful or because they
are repugnant to our moral nature. A watchman is stationed at the gate
of consciousness to keep them back, but sometimes these unwelcome
intruders slip past him in disguise. In the hands of fanatical Freudians
this theory has developed the wildest extravagancies, and the voluminous
literature of psycho-analysis contains much that seems to the layman
quite as absurd as the stuff which fills the twenty-five cent dream
It is impossible to believe that the subconsciousness of every one of us
contains nothing but the foul and monstrous specimens which they dredge
up from the mental depths of their neuropathic patients and exhibit with
such pride.
Bergson's view seems to me truer as it is certainly more agreeable, that
we keep stored away somewhere all our memories, the good as well as the
evil, the pleasant together with the unpleasant. There may be nightmares
down cellar, as we thought as a child, but even in those days we knew
how to dodge them when we went after apples; that is, take down a light
and slam the door quickly on coming up.
Maeterlinck, too, knew this trick of our childhood. When in the Palace
of Night scene of his fairy play, the redoubtable Tyltyl unlocks the
cage where are confined the nightmares and all other evil imaginings, he
shuts the door in time to keep them in and then opens another revealing
a lovely garden full of blue birds, which, though they fade and die when
brought into the light of common day, yet encourage him to continue his
search for the Blue Bird that never fades, but lives everlastingly. The
new science of dreams is giving a deeper significance to the trite wish
of "Good night and pleasant dreams!" It means sweet sanity and mental
health, pure thoughts and good will to all men.
Professor Bergson's theory of dreaming here set forth in untechnical
language, fits into a particular niche in his general system of
philosophy as well as does his little book on _Laughter_. With the main
features of his philosophy the English-reading public is better
acquainted than with any other contemporary system, for his books have
sold even more rapidly here than in France. When Professor Bergson
visited the United States two years ago the lecture-rooms of Columbia
University, like those of the Collège de France, were packed to the
doors and the effect of his message was enhanced by his eloquence of
delivery and charm of personality. The pragmatic character of his
philosophy appeals to the genius of the American people as is shown by
the influence of the teaching of William James and John Dewey, whose
point of view in this respect resembles Bergson's.
During the present generation chemistry and biology have passed from the
descriptive to the creative stage. Man is becoming the overlord of the
mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. He is learning to make gems and
perfumes, drugs and foods, to suit his tastes, instead of depending upon
the chance bounty of nature. He is beginning consciously to adapt means
to ends and to plan for the future even in the field of politics. He has
opened up the atom and finds in it a microcosm more complex than the
solar system. He beholds the elements melting with fervent heat and he
turns their rays to the healing of his sores. He drives the lightning
through the air and with the product feeds his crops. He makes the
desert to blossom as the rose and out of the sea he draws forth dry
land. He treats the earth as his habitation, remodeling it in accordance
with his ever-varying needs and increasing ambitions.
This modern man, planning, contriving and making, finds Paley's watch as
little to his mind as Lucretius's blind flow of atoms. A universe wound
up once for all and doing nothing thereafter but mark time is as
incomprehensible to him as a universe that never had a mind of its own
and knows no difference between past and future. The idea of eternal
recurrence does not frighten him as it did Nietzsche, for he feels it to
be impossible. The mechanistic interpretation of natural phenomena
developed during the last century he accepts at its full value, and
would extend experimentally as far as it will go, for he finds it not
invalid but inadequate.
To minds of this temperament it is no wonder that Bergson's _Creative
Evolution_ came with the force of an inspiration. Men felt themselves
akin to this upward impulse, this _élan vital_, which, struggling
throughout the ages with the intractableness of inert matter, yet
finally in some way or other forces it to its will, and ever strives
toward the increase of vitality, mentality, personality.
Bergson has been reluctant to commit himself on the question of
immortality, but he of late has become quite convinced of it. He even
goes so far as to think it possible that we may find experimental
evidence of personal persistence after death. This at least we might
infer from his recent acceptance of the presidency of the British
Society for Psychical Research. In his opening address before the
Society, May 28, 1913, he discussed the question of telepathy and in
that connection he explained his theory of the relation of mind and
brain in the following language. I quote from the report in the London
The _rôle_ of the brain is to bring back the remembrance of an
action, to prolong the remembrance in movements. If one could see
all that takes place in the interior of the brain, one would find
that that which takes place there corresponds to a small part only
of the life of the mind. The brain simply extracts from the life of
the mind that which is capable of representation in movement. The
cerebral life is to the mental life what the movements of the baton
of a conductor are to the Symphony.
The brain, then, is that which allows the mind to adjust itself
exactly to circumstances. It is the organ of attention to life.
Should it become deranged, however slightly, the mind is no longer
fitted to the circumstances; it wanders, dreams. Many forms of
mental alienation are nothing else. But from this it results that
one of the _rôles_ of the brain is to limit the vision of the
mind, to render its action more efficacious. This is what we
observe in regard to the memory, where the _rôle_ of the brain is
to mask the useless part of our past in order to allow only the
useful remembrances to appear. Certain useless recollections, or
dream remembrances, manage nevertheless to appear also, and to form
a vague fringe around the distinct recollections. It would not be
at all surprising if perceptions of the organs of our senses,
useful perceptions, were the result of a selection or of a
canalization worked by the organs of our senses in the interest of
our action, but that there should yet be around those perceptions a
fringe of vague perceptions, capable of becoming more distinct in
extraordinary, abnormal cases. Those would be precisely the cases
with which psychical research would deal.
This conception of mental action forms, as will be seen, the foundation
of the theory of dreams which Professor Bergson first presented in a
lecture before the _Institut psychologique_, March 26, 1901. It was
published in the _Revue scientifique_ of June 8, 1901. An English
translation, revised by the author and printed in _The Independent_ of
October 23 and 30, 1913, here appears for the first time in book form.
In this essay Professor Bergson made several contributions to our
knowledge of dreams. He showed, in the first place, that dreaming is not
so unlike the ordinary process of perception as had been hitherto
supposed. Both use sense impressions as crude material to be molded and
defined by the aid of memory images. Here, too, he set forth the idea,
which he, so far as I know, was the first to formulate, that sleep is a
state of disinterestedness, a theory which has since been adopted by
several psychologists. In this address, also, was brought into
consideration for the first time the idea that the self may go through
different degrees of tension--a theory referred to in his _Matter and
Its chief interest for the general reader will, however, lie in the
explanation it gives him of the cause of some of his familiar dreams. He
may by practice become the interpreter of his own visions and so come to
an understanding of the vagaries of that mysterious and inseparable
companion, his dream-self.
FEBRUARY 10, 1914.
The subject which I have to discuss here is so complex, it raises so
many questions of all kinds, difficult, obscure, some psychological,
others physiological and metaphysical; in order to be treated in a
complete manner it requires such a long development--and we have so
little space, that I shall ask your permission to dispense with all
preamble, to set aside unessentials, and to go at once to the heart of
the question.
A dream is this. I perceive objects and there is nothing there. I see
men; I seem to speak to them and I hear what they answer; there is no
one there and I have not spoken. It is all _as if_ real things and real
persons were there, then on waking all has disappeared, both persons and
things. How does this happen?
But, first, is it true that there is nothing there? I mean, is there not
presented a certain sense material to our eyes, to our ears, to our
touch, etc., during sleep as well as during waking?
Close the eyes and look attentively at what goes on in the field of our
vision. Many persons questioned on this point would say that nothing
goes on, that they see nothing. No wonder at this, for a certain amount
of practise is necessary to be able to observe oneself satisfactorily.
But just give the requisite effort of attention, and you will
distinguish, little by little, many things. First, in general, a black
background. Upon this black background occasionally brilliant points
which come and go, rising and descending, slowly and sedately. More
often, spots of many colors, sometimes very dull, sometimes, on the
contrary, with certain people, so brilliant that reality cannot compare
with it. These spots spread and shrink, changing form and color,
constantly displacing one another. Sometimes the change is slow and
gradual, sometimes again it is a whirlwind of vertiginous rapidity.
Whence comes all this phantasmagoria? The physiologists and the
psychologists have studied this play of colors. "Ocular spectra,"
"colored spots," "phosphenes," such are the names that they have given
to the phenomenon. They explain it either by the slight modifications
which occur ceaselessly in the retinal circulation, or by the pressure
that the closed lid exerts upon the eyeball, causing a mechanical
excitation of the optic nerve. But the explanation of the phenomenon and
the name that is given to it matters little. It occurs universally and
it constitutes--I may say at once--the principal material of which we
shape our dreams, "such stuff as dreams are made on."
Thirty or forty years ago, M. Alfred Maury and, about the same time, M.
d'Hervey, of St. Denis, had observed that at the moment of falling
asleep these colored spots and moving forms consolidate, fix themselves,
take on definite outlines, the outlines of the objects and of the
persons which people our dreams. But this is an observation to be
accepted with caution, since it emanates from psychologists already half
asleep. More recently an American psychologist, Professor Ladd, of
Yale, has devised a more rigorous method, but of difficult application,
because it requires a sort of training. It consists in acquiring the
habit on awakening in the morning of keeping the eyes closed and
retaining for some minutes the dream that is fading from the field of
vision and soon would doubtless have faded from that of memory. Then one
sees the figures and objects of the dream melt away little by little
into phosphenes, identifying themselves with the colored spots that the
eye really perceives when the lids are closed. One reads, for example, a
newspaper; that is the dream. One awakens and there remains of the
newspaper, whose definite outlines are erased, only a white spot with
black marks here and there; that is the reality. Or our dream takes us
upon the open sea--round about us the ocean spreads its waves of
yellowish gray with here and there a crown of white foam. On awakening,
it is all lost in a great spot, half yellow and half gray, sown with
brilliant points. The spot was there, the brilliant points were there.
There was really presented to our perceptions, in sleep, a visual dust,
and it was this dust which served for the fabrication of our dreams.
Will this alone suffice? Still considering the sensation of sight, we
ought to add to these visual sensations which we may call internal all
those which continue to come to us from an external source. The eyes,
when closed, still distinguish light from shade, and even, to a certain
extent, different lights from one another. These sensations of light,
emanating from without, are at the bottom of many of our dreams. A
candle abruptly lighted in the room will, for example, suggest to the
sleeper, if his slumber is not too deep, a dream dominated by the image
of fire, the idea of a burning building. Permit me to cite to you two
observations of M. Tissié on this subject:
"B---- Léon dreams that the theater of Alexandria is on _fire_; the
flame lights up the whole place. All of a sudden he finds himself
transported to the midst of the fountain in the public square; a line
of _fire_ runs along the chains which connect the great posts placed
around the margin. Then he finds himself in Paris at the exposition,
which is on _fire_. He takes part in terrible scenes, etc. He wakes with
a start; his eyes catch the rays of light projected by the dark lantern
which the night nurse flashes toward his bed in passing. M---- Bertrand
dreams that he is in the marine infantry where he formerly served. He
goes to Fort-de-France, to Toulon, to Loriet, to Crimea, to
Constantinople. He sees lightning, he hears thunder, he takes part in a
combat in which he sees _fire_ leap from the mouths of cannon. He wakes
with a start. Like B., he was wakened by a flash of light projected from
the dark lantern of the night nurse." Such are often the dreams provoked
by a bright and sudden light.
Very different are those which are suggested by a mild and continuous
light like that of the moon. A. Krauss tells how one day on awakening he
perceived that he was extending his arm toward what in his dream
appeared to him to be the image of a young girl. Little by little this
image melted into that of the full moon which darted its rays upon him.
It is a curious thing that one might cite other examples of dreams where
the rays of the moon, caressing the eyes of the sleeper, evoked before
him virginal apparitions. May we not suppose that such might have been
the origin in antiquity of the fable of Endymion--Endymion the shepherd,
lapped in perpetual slumber, for whom the goddess Selene, that is, the
moon, is smitten with love while he sleeps?
I have spoken of visual sensations. They are the principal ones. But the
auditory sensations nevertheless play a rôle. First, the ear has also
its internal sensations, sensations of buzzing, of tinkling, of
whistling, difficult to isolate and to perceive while awake, but which
are clearly distinguished in sleep. Besides that we continue, when once
asleep, to hear external sounds. The creaking of furniture, the
crackling of the fire, the rain beating against the window, the wind
playing its chromatic scale in the chimney, such are the sounds which
come to the ear of the sleeper and which the dream converts, according
to circumstances, into conversation, singing, cries, music, etc.
Scissors were struck against the tongs in the ears of Alfred Maury while
he slept. Immediately he dreamt that he heard the tocsin and took part
in the events of June, 1848. Such observations and experiences are
numerous. But let us hasten to say that sounds do not play in our dreams
so important a rôle as colors. Our dreams are, above all, visual, and
even more visual than we think. To whom has it not happened--as M. Max
Simon has remarked--to talk in a dream with a certain person, to dream a
whole conversation, and then, all of a sudden, a singular phenomenon
strikes the attention of the dreamer. He perceives that he does not
speak, that he has not spoken, that his interlocutor has not uttered a
single word, that it was a simple exchange of thought between them, a
very clear conversation, in which, nevertheless, nothing has been heard.
The phenomenon is easily enough explained. It is in general necessary
for us to hear sounds in a dream. From nothing we can make nothing. And
when we are not provided with sonorous material, a dream would find it
hard to manufacture sonority.
There is much more to say about the sensations of touch than about those
of hearing, but I must hasten. We could talk for hours about the
singular phenomena which result from the confused sensations of touch
during sleep. These sensations, mingling with the images which occupy
our visual field, modify them or arrange them in their own way. Often in
the midst of the night the contact of our body with its light clothing
makes itself felt all at once and reminds us that we are lightly
clothed. Then, if our dream is at the moment taking us through the
street, it is in this simple attire that we present ourselves to the
gaze of the passers-by, without their appearing to be astonished by it.
We are ourselves astonished in the dream, but that never appears to
astonish other people. I cite this dream because it is frequent. There
is another which many of us must have experienced. It consists of
feeling oneself flying through the air or floating in space. Once having
had this dream, one may be quite sure that it will reappear; and every
time that it recurs the dreamer reasons in this way: "I have had before
now in a dream the illusion of flying or floating, but this time it is
the real thing. It has certainly proved to me that we may free ourselves
from the law of gravitation." Now, if you wake abruptly from this dream,
you can analyze it without difficulty, if you undertake it immediately.
You will see that you feel very clearly that your feet are not touching
the earth. And, nevertheless, not believing yourself asleep, you have
lost sight of the fact that you are lying down. Therefore, since you are
not lying down and yet your feet do not feel the resistance of the
ground, the conclusion is natural that you are floating in space. Notice
this also: when levitation accompanies the flight, it is on one side
only that you make an effort to fly. And if you woke at that moment you
would find that this side is the one on which you are lying, and that
the sensation of effort for flight coincides with the real sensation
given you by the pressure of your body against the bed. This sensation
of pressure, dissociated from its cause, becomes a pure and simple
sensation of effort and, joined to the illusion of floating in space, is
sufficient to produce the dream.
It is interesting to see that these sensations of pressure, mounting, so
to speak, to the level of our visual field and taking advantage of the
luminous dust which fills it, effect its transformation into forms and
colors. M. Max Simon tells of having a strange and somewhat painful
dream. He dreamt that he was confronted by two piles of golden coins,
side by side and of unequal height, which for some reason or other he
had to equalize. But he could not accomplish it. This produced a feeling
of extreme anguish. This feeling, growing moment by moment, finally
awakened him. He then perceived that one of his legs was caught by the
folds of the bedclothes in such a way that his two feet were on
different levels and it was impossible for him to bring them together.
From this the sensation of inequality, making an irruption into the
visual field and there encountering (such at least is the hypothesis
which I propose) one or more yellow spots, expressed itself visually by
the inequality of the two piles of gold pieces. There is, then, immanent
in the tactile sensations during sleep, a tendency to visualize
themselves and enter in this form into the dream.
More important still than the tactile sensations, properly speaking, are
the sensations which pertain to what is sometimes called internal touch,
deep-seated sensations emanating from all points of the organism and,
more particularly, from the viscera. One cannot imagine the degree of
sharpness, of acuity, which may be obtained during sleep by these
interior sensations. They doubtless already exist as well during waking.
But we are then distracted by practical action. We live outside of
ourselves. But sleep makes us retire into ourselves. It happens
frequently that persons subject to laryngitis, amygdalitis, etc., dream
that they are attacked by their affection and experience a disagreeable
tingling on the side of their throat. When awakened, they feel nothing
more, and believe it an illusion; but a few hours later the illusion
becomes a reality. There are cited maladies and grave accidents, attacks
of epilepsy, cardiac affections, etc., which have been foreseen and, as
it were, prophesied in dreams. We need not be astonished, then, that
philosophers like Schopenhauer have seen in the dream a reverberation,
in the heart of consciousness, of perturbations emanating from the
sympathetic nervous system; and that psychologists like Schemer have
attributed to each of our organs the power of provoking a
well-determined kind of dream which represents it, as it were,
symbolically; and finally that physicians like Artigues have written
treatises on the semeiological value of dreams, that is to say, the
method of making use of dreams for the diagnosis of certain maladies.
More recently, M. Tissié, of whom we have just spoken, has shown how
specific dreams are connected with affections of the digestive,
respiratory, and circulatory apparatus.
I will summarize what I have just been saying. When we are sleeping
naturally, it is not necessary to believe, as has often been supposed,
that our senses are closed to external sensations. Our senses continue
to be active. They act, it is true, with less precision, but in
compensation they embrace a host of "subjective" impressions which pass
unperceived when we are awake--for then we live in a world of
perceptions common to all men--and which reappear in sleep, when we live
only for ourselves. Thus our faculty of sense perception, far from being
narrowed during sleep at all points, is on the contrary extended, at
least in certain directions, in its field of operations. It is true that
it often loses in energy, in _tension_, what it gains in extension. It
brings to us only confused impressions. These impressions are the
materials of our dreams. But they are only the materials, they do not
suffice to produce them.
They do not suffice to produce them, because they are vague and
indeterminate. To speak only of those that play the principal rôle, the
changing colors and forms, which deploy before us when our eyes are
closed, never have well-defined contours. Here are black lines upon a
white background. They may represent to the dreamer the page of a book,
or the facade of a new house with dark blinds, or any number of other
things. Who will choose? What is the form that will imprint its decision
upon the indecision of this material? This form is our memory.
Let us note first that the dream in general creates nothing. Doubtless
there may be cited some examples of artistic, literary and scientific
production in dreams. I will recall only the well-known anecdote told of
Tartini, a violinist-composer of the eighteenth century. As he was
trying to compose a sonata and the muse remained recalcitrant, he went
to sleep and he saw in a dream the devil, who seized his violin and
played with master hand the desired sonata. Tartini wrote it out from
memory when he woke. It has come to us under the name of "The Devil's
Sonata." But it is very difficult, in regard to such old cases, to
distinguish between history and legend. We should have auto-observations
of certain authenticity. Now I have not been able to find anything more
than that of the contemporary English novelist, Stevenson. In a very
curious essay entitled "A Chapter on Dreams," this author, who is
endowed with a rare talent for analysis, explains to us how the most
original of his stories have been composed or at least sketched in
dreams. But read the chapter carefully. You will see that at a certain
time in his life Stevenson had come to be in an habitual psychical state
where it was very hard for him to say whether he was sleeping or waking.
That appears to me to be the truth. When the mind creates, I would say
when it is capable of giving the effort of organization and synthesis
which is necessary to triumph over a certain difficulty, to solve a
problem, to produce a living work of the imagination, we are not really
asleep, or at least that part of ourselves which labors is not the same
as that which sleeps. We cannot say, then, that it is a dream. In sleep,
properly speaking, in sleep which absorbs our whole personality, it is
memories and only memories which weave the web of our dreams. But often
we do not recognize them. They may be very old memories, forgotten
during waking hours, drawn from the most obscure depths of our past;
they may be, often are, memories of objects that we have perceived
distractedly, almost unconsciously, while awake. Or they may be
fragments of broken memories which have been picked up here and there
and mingled by chance, composing an incoherent and unrecognizable whole.
Before these bizarre assemblages of images which present no plausible
significance, our intelligence (which is far from surrendering the
reasoning faculty during sleep, as has been asserted) seeks an
explanation, tries to fill the lacunæ. It fills them by calling up other
memories which, presenting themselves often with the same deformations
and the same incoherences as the preceding, demand in their turn a new
explanation, and so on indefinitely. But I do not insist upon this point
for the moment. It is sufficient for me to say, in order to answer the
question which I have propounded, that the formative power of the
materials furnished to the dream by the different senses, the power
which converts into precise, determined objects the vague and indistinct
sensations that the dreamer receives from his eyes, his ears, and the
whole surface and interior of his body, is the memory.
Memory! In a waking state we have indeed memories which appear and
disappear, occupying our mind in turn. But they are always memories
which are closely connected with our present situation, our present
occupation, our present action. I recall at this moment the book of M.
d'Hervey on dreams; that is because I am discussing the subject of
dreams and this act orients in a certain particular direction the
activity of my memory. The memories that we evoke while waking, however
distant they may at first appear to be from the present action, are
always connected with it in some way. What is the rôle of memory in an
animal? It is to recall to him, in any circumstance, the advantageous or
injurious consequences which have formerly arisen in analogous
circumstances, in order to instruct him as to what he ought to do. In
man memory is doubtless less the slave of action, but still it sticks to
it. Our memories, at any given moment, form a solid whole, a pyramid, so
to speak, whose point is inserted precisely into our present action. But
behind the memories which are concerned in our occupations and are
revealed by means of it, there are others, thousands of others, stored
below the scene illuminated by consciousness. Yes, I believe indeed that
all our past life is there, preserved even to the most infinitesimal
details, and that we forget nothing, and that all that we have felt,
perceived, thought, willed, from the first awakening of our
consciousness, survives indestructibly. But the memories which are
preserved in these obscure depths are there in the state of invisible
phantoms. They aspire, perhaps, to the light, but they do not even try
to rise to it; they know that it is impossible and that I, as a living
and acting being, have something else to do than to occupy myself with
them. But suppose that, at a given moment, I become _disinterested_ in
the present situation, in the present action--in short, in all which
previously has fixed and guided my memory; suppose, in other words, that
I am asleep. Then these memories, perceiving that I have taken away the
obstacle, have raised the trapdoor which has kept them beneath the floor
of consciousness, arise from the depths; they rise, they move, they
perform in the night of unconsciousness a great dance macabre. They rush
together to the door which has been left ajar. They all want to get
through. But they cannot; there are too many of them. From the
multitudes which are called, which will be chosen? It is not hard to
say. Formerly, when I was awake, the memories which forced their way
were those which could involve claims of relationship with the present
situation, with what I saw and heard around me. Now it is more vague
images which occupy my sight, more indecisive sounds which affect my
ear, more indistinct touches which are distributed over the surface of
my body, but there are also the more numerous sensations which arise
from the deepest parts of the organism. So, then, among the phantom
memories which aspire to fill themselves with color, with sonority, in
short with materiality, the only ones that succeed are those which can
assimilate themselves with the color-dust that we perceive, the external
and internal sensations that we catch, etc., and which, besides, respond
to the affective tone of our general sensibility.[1] When this union is
effected between the memory and the sensation, we have a dream.
In a poetic page of the Enneades, the philosopher Plotinus, interpreter
and continuator of Plato, explains to us how men come to life. Nature,
he says, sketches the living bodies, but sketches them only. Left to her
own forces she can never complete the task. On the other hand, souls
inhabit the world of Ideas. Incapable in themselves of acting, not even
thinking of action, they float beyond space and beyond time. But, among
all the bodies, there are some which specially respond by their form to
the aspirations of some particular souls; and among these souls there
are those which recognize themselves in some particular body. The body,
which does not come altogether viable from the hand of nature, rises
toward the soul which might give it complete life; and the soul, looking
upon the body and believing that it perceives its own image as in a
mirror, and attracted, fascinated by the image, lets itself fall. It
falls, and this fall is life. I may compare to these detached souls the
memories plunged in the obscurity of the unconscious. On the other hand,
our nocturnal sensations resemble these incomplete bodies. The
sensation is warm, colored, vibrant and almost living, but vague. The
memory is complete, but airy and lifeless. The sensation wishes to find
a form on which to mold the vagueness of its contours. The memory would
obtain matter to fill it, to ballast it, in short to realize it. They
are drawn toward each other; and the phantom memory, incarnated in the
sensation which brings to it flesh and blood, becomes a being with a
life of its own, a dream.
The birth of a dream is then no mystery. It resembles the birth of all
our perceptions. The mechanism of the dream is the same, in general, as
that of normal perception. When we perceive a real object, what we
actually see--the sensible matter of our perception--is very little in
comparison with what our memory adds to it. When you read a book, when
you look through your newspaper, do you suppose that all the printed
letters really come into your consciousness? In that case the whole day
would hardly be long enough for you to read a paper. The truth is that
you see in each word and even in each member of a phrase only some
letters or even some characteristic marks, just enough to permit you to
divine the rest. All of the rest, that you think you see, you really
give yourself as an hallucination. There are numerous and decisive
experiments which leave no doubt on this point. I will cite only those
of Goldscheider and Müller. These experimenters wrote or printed some
formulas in common use, "Positively no admission;" "Preface to the
fourth edition," etc. But they took care to write the words incorrectly,
changing and, above all, omitting letters. These sentences were exposed
in a darkened room. The person who served as the subject of the
experiment was placed before them and did not know, of course, what had
been written. Then the inscription was illuminated by the electric light
for a very short time, too short for the observer to be able to perceive
really all the letters. They began by determining experimentally the
time necessary for seeing one letter of the alphabet. It was then easy
to arrange it so that the observer could not perceive more than eight or
ten letters, for example, of the thirty or forty letters composing the
formula. Usually, however, he read the entire phrase without difficulty.
But that is not for us the most instructive point of this experiment.
If the observer is asked what are the letters that he is sure of having
seen, these may be, of course, the letters really written, but there may
be also absent letters, either letters that we replaced by others or
that have simply been omitted. Thus an observer will see quite
distinctly in full light a letter which does not exist, if this letter,
on account of the general sense, ought to enter into the phrase. The
characters which have really affected the eye have been utilized only to
serve as an indication to the unconscious memory of the observer. This
memory, discovering the appropriate remembrance, _i.e._, finding the
formula to which these characters give a start toward realization,
projects the remembrance externally in an hallucinatory form. It is
this remembrance, and not the words themselves, that the observer has
seen. It is thus demonstrated that rapid reading is in great part a work
of divination, but not of abstract divination. It is an externalization
of memories which take advantage, to a certain extent, of the partial
realization that they find here and there in order to completely realize
Thus, in the waking state and in the knowledge that we get of the real
objects which surround us, an operation is continually going on which is
of quite the same nature as that of the dream. We perceive merely a
sketch of the object. This sketch appeals to the complete memory, and
this complete memory, which by itself was either unconscious or simply
in the thought state, profits by the occasion to come out. It is this
kind of hallucination, inserted and fitted into a real frame, that we
perceive. It is a shorter process: it is very much quicker done than to
see the thing itself. Besides, there are many interesting observations
to be made upon the conduct and attitude of the memory images during
this operation. It is not necessary to suppose that they are in our
memory in a state of inert impressions. They are like the steam in a
boiler, under more or less tension.
At the moment when the perceived sketch calls them forth, it is as if
they were then grouped in families according to their relationship and
resemblances. There are experiments of Münsterberg, earlier than those