Dreams of a Spirit-Seer/Part 1/Chapter 3

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Aristotle says, somewhere, “When we are awake, we have a common world, but when we dream, everybody is his own.” It seems to me that it ought to be possible to reverse this latter proposition and say, if, among different human beings, every one has his own world, it may be supposed that they dream. With this understanding we will view the various imaginary worlds of these air-architects which each one inhabits quietly to the exclusion of others. Behold, for example, him who inhabits the Order of Things as it was framed by Wolf out of but little building material obtained from experience, but many conceptions gotten on the sly. Or we will view those who inhabit the world produced by Crusius out of nothing, by means of a few magical sayings about the thinkable and the unthinkable. And, as we find that their visions are contradictory, we will patiently wait until the gentlemen have finished dreaming. For if, at some time, by the will of God, they wake up, i.e., open their eyes to such a view as does not exclude conformity with other people’s common sense, then none of them will see anything that does not appear evident and certain in the light of their proofs to others also, and the philosophers will then inhabit a common world, of the kind which mathematicians have already occupied for a long time. And this event cannot be delayed much longer, if certain signs and predictions, which for some time have appeared over the horizon of science, can be trusted.

Reason-dreamers have a certain relation with sensation-dreamers, among whom are usually counted those who occasionally deal with spirits. The reason is that they too, like the former, see something which no other healthy man sees, and have a communication of their own with beings which reveal themselves to nobody else, however keen the others’ senses may be. If one supposes that the above-named apparitions rest upon mere fancies, the term “dreams” then becomes appropriate to them in so far as both are self-created pictures which nevertheless deceive the senses as if they were true objects. But if one imagines both kinds of deception to be so similar in their origin that the source of the one will be found sufficient for the other, he is greatly deceived. The man who, while awake, becomes so absorbed in the fancies and chimeras created by his ever active imagination as to pay little attention to the sensations of the senses with which he is mostly concerned at that moment, is justly called a waking dreamer. For the sensations of the senses need decrease only a little more in their intensity, and he will be asleep, and his chimeras will then be true dreams. The reason why they are no dreams while the dreamer pursues them awake, is, because he then perceives the dreams as in himself, but other objects as outside of himself; consequently he considers the dreams as effects of his own activity, but the perception of objects as part of .his received impressions from the outside. For in this situation everything depends upon the relation which man assumes the objects to have to himself as a man, and, consequently, also to his body. Thus, the same pictures can indeed occupy him very much in his waking state, but they cannot deceive him, however clear they may be. For although he has then, too, in his brain a fictitious impression of himself and his body, which he puts in relation to his fantastic pictures, nevertheless the real sensation of his body, by means of the external senses, establishes a contrast with those chimeras, or distinction from them, which goes to show the ones as self-created, the other as perceived.40 If he falls asleep, the idea of his body derived from impressions disappears, and only the fictitious idea remains. In relation to this latter idea, the other chimeras are now assumed to be outside of himself, and they are found to deceive the dreamer as long as he sleeps, because there is no sensation present which would furnish a basis for a comparison of the two whereby the original could be distinguished from the phantasm, i.e., the outside from the inside.

The spirit-seers, therefore, are entirely different from waking dreamers not only in degree, but in kind. For while they are waking, and often while they are experiencing other sensations with great vividness, the spirit-seers place some imagined things among the external objects which they really perceive. The only question is, how it is possible that they place the phantoms of their imagination outside of themselves, and even put them in relation to their body, which they sense through their external senses. The great clearness of the fantasy cannot be the cause, for the point at issue is, the place where an object is put; and, therefore, I demand that it be shown how the soul places such an image as it should perceive to be contained in itself, into an entirely different relation, namely, into a place outside of itself and among those objects which are offered to its real perception. I shall not be satisfied with the quotation of other cases which bear some resemblance with this deception, such as perhaps occur in the state of fever; for be the deceived well or sick, we do not want to know if such a thing happens also elsewhere, but how this deception is possible.

We find, however, in using our external senses, that besides the clearness with which the objects are seen, we perceive at the same time their location, perhaps not always with the same accuracy, still as a necessary condition of sensation, without which it would be impossible to perceive things as being outside of ourselves.41 Here it becomes quite probable that our soul locates the perceived object at that point where the different lines, indicating the direction of the impression, meet. That is why we see a radiating point at the meeting-place of those lines which we draw from the eye back in the direction of the rays. This point, which we call the point of vision, is, in its effect, the scattering point, but, in the way it is perceived, it is the point which collects the lines of direction determining the sensation (focus imaginarius). Thus we locate a visible object even with one eye alone; in the same way as, by means of a concave mirror, the image of an object is seen in the air just in that spot where the rays radiating from one point of the object meet before entering the eye.[1]

The same theory, perhaps, can be applied to the impressions of sound, because its shocks, too, are transmitted in straight lines. Then we should say that the sensation of sound is accompanied by the perception of a focus imaginarius, and that this is placed in that point where the straight lines meet which are drawn to the outside from the vibrating nerve-structure inside of the brain. For the place and distance of a sounding object is perceived to some extent, even if the sound is low and comes from the back, and although the lines drawn from such a position do not strike the opening of the ear, but other places of the head. This makes one believe that the soul continues the lines of vibration externally in imagination, and places the sounding object in their meeting -point.42 The same can, in my opinion, be predicated of the other three senses, differing from sight and hearing in this respect that the object of sensation is in immediate contact with the organs of these other senses, and the lines indicating the place of the organic stimulus find in the organs themselves their meeting-point.

In applying this to the pictures of imagination, permit me to take as basis the hypothesis of Cartesius, approved of by most of the philosophers after him, that all representations of the imagination are accompanied by certain movements in the nerve-tissue or nerve-spirit of the brain, which movements are called “ideae materiales”; i.e., these representations are, perhaps, accompanied by the concussion or vibration of the fine element secreted by these nerve-tissues. This vibration is similar to the movements which the sense-impression might produce, and of which the nerve-vibration is a copy. But now I must ask that if it be granted that the principal difference between the nerve-movements in fantasies, and in sensations, consists in the fact that, with fantasies, the lines indicating the direction, of the movement meet inside of the brain, while in sensation they meet outside; then, since the focus imaginarius in which the objects are perceived in the clear sensations of the waking state is placed outside of myself, but the focus imaginarius of the fantasies entertained during the same state is placed inside of myself, I cannot fail, as long as I am awake, to distinguish from the sense-impressions these imaginations as fantasies.

If so much is admitted, it seems to me that I can adduce some reasonable cause for that kind of mind-disturbance called insanity, and, in its higher degree, trance. The peculiarity of this disease is that the confused individual places mere objects of his imagination outside of himself, and considers them to be real and present objects. Now I have stated that, according to the common order of things, the lines indicating the direction of the movement, and accompanying the fantasies in the brain as their material auxiliaries, must meet inside the brain, and that, consequently, the location of the picture in the subject’s consciousness in the waking state must be placed inside of himself. If, therefore, I suppose that, by any accident or disease, certain organs of the brain are distorted or thrown out of their equilibrium in such a manner that the nerve movements, vibrating harmoniously with certain fantasies, occur according to such lines of direction as, continued, would meet outside of the brain, then the focus imaginarius would be placed outside of the thinking subject,[2] and the image produced by mere imagination would be perceived as an object present to the external senses. Though such a phantom be only weak at the beginning, the consternation at the appearance of a thing which ought not to be there according to the natural order of things, will soon arouse attention, and will give to the phantom sensation such a vividness that the deluded person cannot doubt its reality. This delusion can affect any one of the external senses, for of each we have copied images in imagination, and the contortion of nerve-tissue can cause the focus imaginarius to be placed in that spot, whence the organic impression of a really existing bodily object would come. It is not astonishing, then, if the visionary believes to see or hear many a thing which nobody perceives besides him, or if these fancies appear to him and disappear suddenly, or if they beguile the sense of vision, for example, and can be apprehended by no other sense (if they cannot be felt, for instance), and thus seem to him intangible. The common ghost-stories depend so much on such indications as these that they easily justify the suspicion of hailing from such a source, In the same way the current conception of spiritual beings which we evolved out of common phraseology, is very much of the nature of this delusion, and does not belie its origin, since the quality of an intangible presence in space is said to constitute the essential characteristic of this conception.

It is further very probable that the idea of spectres, imbibed from education, furnishes the head of a diseased person with materials for deluding apparitions, and that a brain free from all such prejudices would not so soon hatch out phantasms of this kind, even though some aberration might befall it. Furthermore, as the disease of the visionary concerns not so much the reason, as a deception of the senses, it will be easily recognized that the unfortunate subject cannot remove the delusion by any reasoning; for a true or apparent impression of the senses precedes all the judgments of the reason, and carries with it immediate evidence, far excelling all other persuasion.43

The consequence resulting from all these considerations is in so far inconvenient, as it renders entirely superfluous the deep conjectures of the preceding chapter; and the reader, though he was ready to receive with some approval its idealistic notions, will nevertheless prefer that conception which allows of more comfort and brevity in judging, and which promises to find the more general approval. For, aside from the fact that it seems to conform more with a reasonable frame of mind to find the means of explanation in the material furnished by experience, than to lose one’s self in the dizzy conceptions of a reason, partly inventing, partly jumping at conclusions, there is always found, in such speculations, occasion for scoffing, than which, whether justifiable or not, there is no stronger means of keeping back idle investigation. For it creates at once grave suspicion for one to attempt seriously to expound the fancies of a visionary, and the kind of philosophy which is found in such bad company is open to question. It is true, I have, in the preceding, not contested the insanity of such apparitions. Rather, while I have not made insanity to be the cause of an imagined communion with spirits, I have yet connected the two by considering insanity as the natural consequence of such communion. But what foolishness is there which could not be harmonized with a bottomless philosophy? Therefore, I do not at all blame the reader, if, instead of regarding the spirit-seers as half-dwellers in another world, he, without further ceremony, despatches them as candidates for the hospital, and thereby spares himself any further investigation. But, if everything then is to be treated on such a basis, the manner of handling such adepts of the spirit-world must be very different from that based upon the ideas given above; and if, formerly, it was found necessary at times to burn some of them, it now will suffice to give them a purgative. Indeed, from this point of view, there was no need of going so far back as to metaphysics, for hunting up secrets in the deluded brain of dreamers. The keen Hudibras could alone have solved for us the riddle, for he thinks that visions and holy inspirations are simply caused by a disordered stomach.[3]


  1. This is the way in which optics usually represent the process of locating an object, and it agrees very well with experience. But the same rays which diverge from a point, are, on account of the refraction in the moistures of the eye, not thrown on the retina as divergent rays, but are there united into one point. If the sensation occurs only in this nerve, the focus imaginarius would, in consequence, have to be placed not outside of the body, but in the background of the eye itself. This creates a difficulty which I cannot solve at present, and which seems incompatible with the above-named propositions, as well as with experience.
  2. Remotely resembling the above-mentioned accident is the state of drunken people, who see things double, because the swelling of the blood-vessels prevents the axes of the eyes from being adjusted so that their continuation may meet in the point where the object is. Similarly, a distortion of brain fibres, perhaps only temporary, and, while it lasts, affecting only a few nerves, may oqcasion certain fantasies of imagination to appear to be outside of ourselves even in the waking state. A very common experience may be compared with this deception. After having slept, we often regard with drowsy and half-opened eyes—the variegated threads of the bed-curtains, or of the covering, or the small spots of the nearest wall, and easily form out of them figures of human faces and similar things. The delusion ceases at will and as soon as attention is aroused. In this case the transfer of the focus imaginarius of the fantasies is, to some extent, subject to our discretion, while in the trance it cannot be controlled by any will power.
  3. This sentence is a free rendering of the German, the outspokenness of which is hardly bearable in English. The original reads as follows:—“Der scharfsichtige Hudibras haette uns allein das Raetsel aufloesen koennen, denn nach seiner Meinung: wenn ein hypochondrischer Wind in den Eingeweiden tobt, so kommt es darauf an, welche Richtung er nimmt, geht er abwaerts, so wird daraus ein F—, steight er aber aufwaerts, so ist es eine Erscheinung oder eine heilige Eingebung.”