Sunday, February 12, 2017

Towards a history of dream sharing

Shall these texts live? This is a major challenge for the historian of dreams in other eras. A dream is not a text; it is an experience whose full nature and dimensions can only be glimpsed in even an extensive dream report. If we are working with contemporary dreamers, we may have the opportunity to enter that fuller experience with them, through careful questioning to elicit details that are initially flown, and even by traveling with them back inside the dreamspace, through the techniques I call dream reentry and tracking. [1] However, this option is not obviously available when we are trying to fathom the dreams in the personal diary of an eighteenth-century Quaker physician, or the dreams attributed to an anonymous Huron/Wendat by a seventeenth-century French Jesuit. 
     When we are examining reports of dreams collected by outsiders with very different agendas from native dreamers, the challenge of remoteness in time is magnified, because now we are seeing through a distorting lens. Close study of the context of dreams, and especially of the way they are shared and valued in a certain time and culture, brings us closer. A history of dreams must be, to no small degree a history of dream sharing, and this is what the authors of Dreams, Dreamers and Visions have given us, in a remarkable collection of essays that explore and compare patterns of dreaming on both sides of the Atlantic in the early modern era.
    The editors set the stage beautifully in their introduction, announcing that “dreams and the struggle to explain them offer a unique vantage point from which to examine the social construction of truth and meaning in an historical period often considered the crucible of the modern world.” In societies that value dreams and visions, the sharing of a dream may be the assertion of authority and a claim to divine favor.
    When dreams are regarded as prophetic or direct messages from divine powers, a dream can be a mandate for revolt or reformation. In history, dream sharing has been “a means through which to assert oneself in the social world” and “a power-laded form of communication.” In societies where dreams are valued and regarded as possible messages from the divine, some kind of dream police often arises. If dreams are known to be powerful, there will always be those who want to hijack that power. So we see church authorities ruling on whether a dream comes from angels or devils or is mere trash to be thrown out.

      In many languages, you don’t say that you “had” a dream; you say that you “saw” a dream. In a fascinating discussion of the valuation of inner sight, Mary Baine Campbell reminds us that rêve the French word for “dream” that supplanted songe in this period, arises from verbs that mean “roving” (or “raving”). Its first appearance in print may have been in Le Jeune’s account of Iroquoian dream practices in the Jesuit Relations, the huge compilation of blackrobe reports from New France in the seventeenth century.
    Janine Rivière’s elegant contribution on night terrors will win the sympathy of contemporary sufferers from the misnamed phenomenon of sleep paralysis (it is parasomniac, “around sleep”, not of sleep) though early modern explanations (from demonic invasions to the effects of lying on your back) are unlikely to be found helpful.
    In her careful account of Lucrecia de León, the dream seer of Madrid in the age of the Spanish Armada, Maria V. Jordán takes us into a culture in which dreams were scanned for political and military intelligence as well as applauded or condemned as vehicles for prophecy, depending on the implications for those in authority. I would have liked to have seen more on Lucrecia’s relations with her amanuenses and the mode of dissemination of transcriptions of her dreams – for example, by mounted courier to her powerful Mendoza patron in Toledo, or by painted images displayed at the house parties of an English-born duchess. [2]
     Luis Corteguera gives us the prodigious but dubious story of Pere Porter, a peasant who claimed he went to hell and back, and was then tried by the Inquisition but found innocent. This is an intriguing tale of what might now be described as an alleged near-death experience was used as a vehicle for social criticism. Luis Filipe Silverio Lima describes how prophetic dreams harvested from the Bible fueled the efforts of Father Antonio Vieira, a Jesuit missionary in Brazil, to promote a “Fifth Empire” with the Portuguese monarchy as the executor of “a divine plan…for human history.”
  The middle part of the book explores the encounter between Europeans and the dreaming practices of indigenous Americans, and it is a mine of fascinating materials.
     Carla Gerona takes us, with the Franciscans, into Texas border country where dreams from the Old World and the New World corresponded and collided. Both the missionaries and the Hasinai became obsessed with sightings of a flying blue woman. Such a being was central to native mythology, but the Franciscans made a determined attempt to persuade the Indians that they were seeing a flying nun – Sister Maria de 
Jesús de Agreda, who was credited by church authorities with accomplishing some 500 bilocations, appearing in the New World while her body was in convent in Spain. Indigenous connas (shamans) were widely credited with powers of flight, but the Franciscans were quick to condemn such reports as deceptions of the Devil. Meanwhile, either bereft of spontaneous dreams or fearful of them, members of the Texas mission cried for visions and sought magical powers by fantastic austerities.
    Andrew Redden explores how the Jesuits sought to reshape the indigenous imagination in Peru and Mexico towards conversion by the judicious dissemination of dream reports favoring their cause.
    Leslie Tuttle gives us a finely crafted study of the mentalité that shaped the attitudes of French Jesuits before they made the crossing to New France. She adds a very useful analysis of how the Jesuit Relations were composed and disseminated, giving the educated Catholic world a view of Canada and indigenous ways that was  in many ways “a Jesuit rhetorical creation”.
     The scholarly thriller in this book is Emma Anderson’s excellent study of the visions of Marie de Saint Augustin, a nursing sister who presented herself as guided and even possessed by the spirit of Father Jean de Brébeuf, who was fire-tortured to death by the Iroquois in 1649 and eventually canonized. Marie served the pulverized bones of Brébeuf to the sick, and claimed they produced miracles. After she saw the Jesuit martyr crowned, with a dove in his heart, in a big vision, she gained influence over men of power in Quebec, and was even able to make and break bishops. While talking to the apparition of Brébeuf – and conceding at times that he may be an aspect of her own greater self – she is also demon-haunted, puking at the idea of taking the eucharist. The elements are all here for both a depth psychological study and a superior horror film.
In her splendid contribution on dreaming in the British Enlightenment,  Phyllis Mack observes that dreaming was “the most credible means of experiencing a connection to the divine or inward change". Dreams were “a universal  source of fascination” though there was a  “combustion of opinions” about their sources and reliability. In popular street literature, dreams might come from the Devil or from a witch’s spell, or be caught like a contagious disease. Physicians spoke about glands and heavy meals too close to bedtime. But repentant former slave trader John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace” declared that dreams can deliver divine energy and offer proof  “the soul, without flesh, can act” – and will therefore survive death.
   Mack takes us through the rise of “a virtual dream culture” among Arminian Methodists and Quakers, who made a regular practice of sharing dreams and used nightmares as wake-up calls. She gives us a welcome reminder of one of the best 1,500 words on dreams that have ever been written, a 1712 article by Joseph Addison in The Spectator in which he explains that dreams are generated from within the dreamer but independently from the conscious self – and so offer proof of one of the preconditions for immortality, the capacity of the soul to operate outside the body.
    In a final essay, Matthew Dennis revisits the dreams of the Seneca prophet and recovering alcoholic Handsome Lake, which gave rise to a new religion, as explained in Anthony F.C.Wallace’s magnum opus The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Dennis’ contribution is distinguished by his attention to how the codification of the Gaiwio asserted patriarchal claims to authority that were absent from earlier Iroquois society, and by the way he situates the Seneca revival in the spiritual geography of the “Burned-Over” region of upstate New York that was a hothouse for new religious movements in the nineteenth century.
    There is a glaring hole in this book. It is disappointing that there is no treatment of Africa in a collection devoted to the “Atlantic world.” I made a small attempt to construct a picture of shamanic dream practices among the peoples of the Gold Coast who were Harriet Tubman’s ancestors [3]– and possibly a partial key to her prowess as a dream seer who helped liberate many fugitive slaves before the American Civil War – and I would love to read a scholarly treatment of this theme.


1.      Robert Moss, Active Dreaming (Novato CA: New World Library, 2010) 49-60.
2.      Robert Moss, The Secret History of Dreaming (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) 163-176.
3.      Moss, Secret History, 177-192


This review of Anne Marie Plane and Leslie Tuttle (editors) Dreams, Dreamers and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) was published in The Journal of World History volume 26, number 4 (December 2015)

Image:  Sister María de Jesús de Agreda, the flying blue nun

No comments: