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« Bergson, "What is a dream?" (part 3) | Main | Bergson, "What is a dream?" (part 1) »

Bergson, "What is a dream?" (part 2)

Part two of a lecture given at the Institut général psychologique by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Let us summarize what we have discussed.  During natural sleep our senses are in no way shut off from outside impressions.  Doubtless they do not have the same precision; on the other hand, they come across far more "subjective" impressions which took place unnoticed during waking hours, when we were moving about the outside world common to all men, and which reappear during sleep because now we only live for ourselves.  We cannot even claim that our perception is reduced when we sleep; rather, it expands, in certain ways at least, its field of operation.  It is true that it loses in tension what it gains in extension.  It hardly delivers anything not diffused and confused.  But we create dreams with just as much real sensation.

How do we create dreams?  The sensations which act as our material are vague and unspecified.  Let us take the most basic among them, those colored spots that evolve before us when we close our eyelids.  Here we have black lines on a white background.  They could represent a carpet, a chessboard, a page of writing, a host of other things as well.  Who selects these things?  What is the form that imprints its decision upon the indecision of the material?  This form is memory.

We note first of all that dreams generally create nothing at all.  Doubtless one may cite several examples of artistic, literary, or scientific works carried out in the course of a dream.  I will only mention the best known of these.  A musician of the eighteenth century, Tartini, burnt with the fires of composition but the muse remained rebellious.  He fell asleep; and here is where the Devil himself appeared, seized a violin, and played the sonata so desired.  Upon waking, Tartini wrote the sonata down from memory, and it comes down to us as the Devil’s Trill Sonata.  But we can get little from such a terse account.  What we really need to know is whether Tartini didn’t actually compose the sonata while trying to recollect it.  The imagination of the sleeper who wakes sometimes adds to the dream, retroactively changes it, or fills in the gaps which may be, we understand, considerable.  I have looked for more profound observations and, most of all, for more certain authenticity. But the only one I could find was that of the Scottish novelist Stevenson.  In a curious essay entitled “A chapter on dreams” Stevenson teaches us that the most original stories have been composed or at least completely sketched out in dreams.  But read that chapter attentively: you will see that the author once knew, at some point in his life, a psychological state in which he had difficulty determining whether he was asleep or awake.  In fact, I believe that when the mind creates, when it makes the effort that demands the composition of a work or the solution to a problem, it is not asleep – at least that part of the mind which is working is not the same as the one which is dreaming.  The working part pursues, in the subconscious, research which has no bearing on the dream and which only appears upon waking.

As for the dream itself, it is hardly more than a resurrection of the past.  But it is a past we do not recognize.  Often, it involves a forgotten detail, a remembrance that seemed erased and which, in reality, was hiding in the depths of memory.  Often the image evoked is also that of an object or action perceived distractedly, almost unconsciously, during waking hours.  And most of all, there are fragments of shattered remembrances which memory collects here and there and which it presents to the consciousness of the sleeper in an incoherent form.  Before this assembly deprived of sense, intelligence (which continues reasoning regardless of what is said) looks for meaning; it attributes incoherence to the gaps which it fills in evoking other remembrances, those which are often presented in the same disorder and which, in turn, suggest a new explanation, and so forth indefinitely.  But for the moment I will not insist on this viewpoint.  Suffice it to say that, to respond to the question I just asked, the informative power which converts vague impressions that catch the eye, the ear, and the entire surface and interior of the body into precise and specified objects – this is memory.

Memory!  When awake, we have quite a few remembrances which appear and disappear, demanding our attention one after another. But these are the remembrances closely attached to our situation and our action.  I recall now a book by the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys on the subject of dreams.  The situation is that I am dealing with the question of dreams and I am here at the Psychology Institute; it involves my surroundings and my occupation, that which I perceive and what I am called upon to orient the activity of my memory in a particular direction.  The remembrances which we evoke while awake, as foreign as they often appear to our preoccupations of the moment, are always connected in some way.  What is the role of memory in an animal? It is to remind him, in each case, of the advantageous and disadvantageous consequences of analogous antecedents and thus to instruct him on what he has to do.  In man, memory is not as much a prisoner of action; I recognize what I have to do but I still persist in not doing it or doing something else.  Our remembrances, at any given time, form a solid whole – a pyramid, if you will – with an unceasingly moving summit that coincides with our present and surges with it into the future.  But behind the remembrances which come and rest in this way upon our present occupation, and which are then revealed in the occupation, there are also others, thousands and thousands of others, below the scene illuminated by our consciousness.

Yes, I believe that our past life is there, retained in its minutest details, and that we forget nothing, and that everything we have ever perceived, thought, wanted, from the first waking hour of our consciousness, persists indefinitely.  But the remembrances which my memory keeps in this way in its darkest depths are also in the form of invisible ghosts.  Perhaps they yearn for light; in any case, they do not try to surface.  They know that it is impossible, and that I, a living and moving creature, have other things to do apart from seeing to them.  But suppose that at a given moment I become disinterested in the present situation, in the present action, in that one point on which my memory would normally concentrate all its activities.  Suppose, in other words, that I fall asleep.  This is when these immobile remembrances, sensing that I have just hurdled the obstacle and lifted the trapdoor which kept them in the basement of my consciousness, set themselves in motion.  They rise, bustle about, carry out tasks, all during the night of the unconsciousness person, an immense danse macabre.  And, all together, they run to the door that has just been cracked open.  They all want to get through.  They all cannot, since there are too many of them.  From among this multitude of summoned remembrances, which are the ones selected?  You will have little difficulty in guessing.  Just now, when I was awake, the remembrances admitted were the ones that could invoke a relationship with the present situation, with my current perceptions.  Now they are the vaguest forms that take shape before my eyes; the most indecisive sounds which impress my ear; the most indistinct of touches which scatter across the surface of my body.  But they are also the most frequent sensations that come from the inside of my organs.  And so, among these ghost remembrances which seek to ballast themselves with color, with sound, with materiality in the end, those which manage to do so are the ones which can assimilate the colored dust that I see, the sounds from outside or inside which I hear, etcetera, and which, in addition, harmonize with the general affective state of which my organic impressions are composed.  When this junction operates between memory and sensation, I dream.

In a poetic page of The Enneads, the philosopher Plotinus, interpreter of and heir to Plato, explains to us how men are born into life.  Nature, he says, sketches out living bodies, but only sketches them out.  Left to its own devices, it would not complete the task.  On the other hand, souls reside in the world of Ideas.  Incapable of acting and not even thinking about doing so, they glide above time and outside space.  But among the bodies, there are certain ones who correspond more in form to the yearnings of certain souls.  And among the souls, there are those who recognize themselves more clearly in certain bodies.  The body, which emerges from nature’s hands still not quite viable, will then polarize to that soul which will give it a complete life.  And the soul, looking at the body in which it believes it has seen its reflection, fascinated as if looking in a mirror, will let itself be attracted as well, bow forward and fall.  Its fall is the beginning of life.  I would compare these detached souls to the remembrances which wait at the bottom of our unconscious.  I would also liken our nocturnal sensations to those hardly sketched bodies.  The sensation is warm, colored, vibrant, and almost living, but indecisive.  The remembrance is clean and precise, but without an inside and without life.  The sensation would surely like to find a form in which it may fix the indecision of its contours.  The remembrance would surely like to obtain material to fill itself out, to ballast itself, to realize itself at last.  They are attracted to one another, and the ghost remembrance materializing in the sensation which brings it blood and flesh becomes a being which lives its own life.  It becomes a dream.

The birth of a dream has therefore no mystery to it.  Our dreams are elaborated a bit like our vision of the real world.  The mechanism of operation is the same generally speaking.  What we see of an object placed before our eyes, and what we understand of a phrase pronounced in our ears, is little, as it were, next to what our memory adds to it.  When you glance through your newspaper, when you leaf through a book, do you think that you actually perceive every letter of every word, or even every word of every sentence?  You wouldn’t be reading many pages per day then. The truth is that you perceive neither the word nor the sentence, but instead only certain letters or certain characteristic traits, just enough for you to guess the rest.  All the rest you think to see, when in reality you have brought upon yourself a hallucination.  Many corroborative experiments leave no doubt in this regard.  I will only cite those of Goldscheider and Müller.  These researchers write or print formulations in contemporary usage: “Entry strictly forbidden”; “Preface to the fourth edition,” etcetera, but take care to make mistakes, changing and, above all, omitting letters.  The person subjected to this experiment is then placed before these formulations, in the dark, and naturally has no idea what was written.  Then the inscription is illuminated for a very short time, too short a time for the observer to see all the letters.  He begins, in fact, by determining experimentally the time needed to catch sight of a letter of the alphabet.  It is thus easy to make it so that the subject cannot distinguish more than eight or ten letters, for example, from the thirty or forty contained in the formulation.  For, more often than not, he can read this formulation without any difficulty.

But this is not the most instructive point of this experiment for us.  If one were to ask the observer which letters are the ones he perceived, the letters he would mention might in fact be present.  But they could also be letters which are absent, which have been replaced by others or which were simply omitted.  In this way, because sense seems to demand it, he sees himself working off nonexistent letters in full light.  The characters that are really perceived are those which serve to evoke a remembrance.  Unconscious memory, finding the formulation to which these characters begin to give shape, projects this remembrance out in hallucinatory form.  It is the remembrance which the observer has seen, much more than the inscription itself.  In short, reading is guesswork, but not abstract guesswork: it is the exteriorization of remembrances, of perceptions recalled simply and therefore unreal, all of which benefit from the partial realization which they find here and there in order to realize themselves completely.

In this way, in a waking state, our recognition of an object implies an analogous operation to that which a dream carries out.  We see nothing of an object except its sketch; this calls upon the remembrance of the complete thing; and the complete remembrance of which our mind was not conscious, remains in any case internal as a simple thought, and takes advantage of the occasion to project itself outwards.  It is this type of hallucination, inserted into a real frame, which we inflict upon ourselves when we see something.  There would also be a lot to say about the attitude and behavior of the remembrance during the course of the operation.  One should not think that the remembrances lodged at the bottom of memory remain there inert and indifferent.  They are waiting; they are almost ready at attention.  When the mind is more or less preoccupied and we open up our newspaper, don’t we immediately manage to stumble across a word which corresponds precisely to our preoccupation?  But the sentence makes no sense, and we perceive right away that the word we read is not the word printed: there were simply some traits in common between the two, a vague resemblance in their configuration.  The idea that we absorbed thus awakened, in our unconscious, all the images of the same family, all the remembrances of similar words, and made them hope, in a way, that they might return to consciousness.  And one has, in effect, become conscious once again that the actual perception of a certain form of word is beginning to come into being.

Such is the mechanism of perception strictly speaking, and such is the mechanism of dreams.  In both cases there are, on the one hand, real impressions made on the sensory organs, and, on the other hand, remembrances which come to be inserted into the impression and which profit from its vitality to return to life.

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