Monday, 16 June 2014

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Dreaming

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Edited from the beginning of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Demonology.


The name Demonology covers dreams, omens, coincidences, luck, sortilege, magic and other experiences which shun rather than court inquiry, and deserve notice chiefly because every man has usually in a lifetime two or three hints in this kind which are specially impressive to him. They also shed light on our structure.
 
The witchcraft of sleep divides with truth the empire of our lives. This soft enchantress visits two children lying locked in each other’s arms, and carries them asunder by wide spaces of land and sea, and wide intervals of time.
 
’T is superfluous to think of the dreams of multitudes, the astonishment remains that one should dream; that we should resign so quietly this deifying Reason, and become the theatre of delirious shows, wherein time, space, persons, cities, animals, should dance before us in merry and mad confusion; a delicate creation outdoing the prime and flower of actual Nature, antic comedy alternating with horrid pictures.
 
Sometimes the forgotten companions of childhood reappear or we seem busied for hours and days in peregrinations over seas and lands, in earnest dialogues, strenuous actions for nothings and absurdities, cheated by spectral jokes and waking suddenly with ghastly laughter, to be rebuked by the cold, lonely, silent midnight, and to rake with confusion in memory among the gibbering nonsense to find the motive of this contemptible cachinnation.
 
Dreams are jealous of being remembered; they dissipate instantly and angrily if you try to hold them. When newly awaked from lively dreams, we are so near them, still agitated by them, still in their sphere,—give us one syllable, one feature, one hint, and we should repossess the whole; hours of this strange entertainment would come trooping back to us; but we cannot get our hand on the first link or fibre, and the whole is lost. There is a strange wilfulness in the speed with which it disperses and baffles our grasp.
 
A dislocation seems to be the foremost trait of dreams. A painful imperfection almost always attends them. The fairest forms, the most noble and excellent persons, are deformed by some pitiful and insane circumstance. The very landscape and scenery in a dream seem not to fit us, but like a coat or cloak of some other person to overlap and encumber the wearer; so is the ground, the road, the house, in dreams, too long or too short, and if it served no other purpose would show us how accurately Nature fits man awake.
 
There is one memory of waking and another of sleep. In our dreams the same scenes and fancies are many times associated, and that too, it would seem, for years. In sleep one shall travel certain roads in stage-coaches or gigs, which he recognizes as familiar, and has dreamed that ride a dozen times; or shall walk alone in familiar fields and meadows, which road or which meadow in waking hours he never looked upon.
 
This feature of dreams deserves the more attention from its singular resemblance to that obscure yet startling experience which almost every person confesses in daylight, that particular passages of conversation and action have occurred to him in the same order before, whether dreaming or waking; a suspicion that they have been with precisely these persons in precisely this room, and heard precisely this dialogue, at some former hour, they know not when.
 
 
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 Note - I only came across this essay a couple of days ago  - despite that I have been reading Emerson for about 40 years. It was bundled into the remarkably good value Delphi edition of the 'Complete' Emerson I bought for my Kindle reader. As a whole Demonology is incoherent and very variable in quality and subject matter - but the above beginning struck me as extremely astute in a typically Emersonian fashion - as well as being beautifully expressed.
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2 comments:

  1. There are magnificent insights in Emerson, but, on the whole, I can`t take him seriously as a thinker. And the gas to insight ratio started to rise as he entered old age.

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  2. @Th - I take him seriously - but I think he was wrong. Wrong in essence, although right in many specifics.

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