Over the weekend I journeyed through the doorway of a recent dream, intent on exploring a most interesting locale, an upscale pub-restaurant called The Huntsman's Arms. I confirmed my impression that the pub is a waystation on the Other Side, and had several memorable encounters with deceased family members and friends and with the enigmatic proprietor, the Huntsman himself. All good Halloween/Samhain fun. In my conscious dream journey, I noticed Winston Churchill looking in on a gathering in a saloon bar. The former statesman was floating in midair, like a human zeppelin, puffing on his eternal cigar. Over many years, Churchill has been a recurring figure in my imaginal life.
The latest sighting prompts me to ask: just who are the great figures of the past who turn up in this way, dead yet seemingly immortal? Who, in the collective psyche, is Princess Diana? Who, in the Catholic imagination, are the saints who are believed still to be working miracles and turning up in visions?
Answers are likely to be slippery, because we dream and perceive in so many different ways, on so many levels. Musing on this theme, I found myself reflecting again on my serial dreams of encounters and "thought experiments" with Einstein; my recent blog post "Einstein's Probability Bundles" is one example. In another of my Einstein dreams, the great scientist welcomed me at the wooden gate of a formal Chinese garden. He led me to a tea house and introduced me, inter alia, to Richard Wilhelm, who gave the West the first translation of the I Ching that works for practical purposes of divination. In the course of our conversation, Einstein made reference to a certain "Fechner", a name previously unknown to me.
I did some research and found that Gustav Fechner was a German psychologist and physicist of the 19th century, credited with pioneering the science of "psychophysics". Fechner, a firm believer in the soul's survival of physical death, attempted to define the different modes and subtle vehicles in which consciousness can both survive death and make itself known to others. In Richard Wilhelm's lectures on the I Ching I found a note on Fechner's psychophysics of the afterlife that goes to the quick of my inquiry about what is going on when Churchill or Einstein turns up in the imaginal lives of the living. Fechner suggested that after death the departed acquires a "body of immortality" that is "formed in the thoughts of other men...formed by their remembrance of the deceased". This body of immortality is "a body of a higher grade, in which the deceased can continue to live" and appear to the living. The great and famous, whose image in life is magnified by the attention and hopes and beliefs of millions, and whose memory is carried by just as many, could presumably take on a "body of immortality" that would enable them to appear and operate like the demigods of the ancient world or the saints of believers.
I wasn't sure that I was ready to post anything about this until I stopped in at my favorite used bookstore on Sunday afternoon. This is one of those happy places where shelf elves are often at play, and are sometimes embodied by the bookseller. The assistant on duty this weekend - a gentle and mature historian and scholar whose day job is at an area college - chose to recollect, out of the blue, "When I was a boy my father gave me a complete collection of Winston Churchill's speeches, on vinyl of course. I was thrilled by them. My wife put them on disk for me and I've been listening again, and they are no less thrilling. It feels like Churchill is one of those people who can reach across time, into many people's minds."