Navigation – Plan du site
La nuit des sens: Rêves et illusions des sens en Angleterre et en Europe à la période moderne

Dream and Sensory Illusions in Seventeenth-century France

Rêve et illusions des sens dans la France du XVIIe siècle
Florence Dumora (Université Paris-Diderot et CERILAC)
Traduction de Peter Thomas

Résumés

Que signifie l’expression apparemment simple d’« illusion des sens » dans le cas particulier du rêve ? Quelles formes le siècle de Calderón, de Shakespeare et de Descartes a-t-il données à cette illusion ? Cet essai propose une typologie des rapports entre le rêve et les données sensorielles selon les conceptions les plus communes au XVIIe siècle, dans les traités théoriques comme dans la littérature. On se limitera à quatre cas distincts : 1) celui d’un rapport en miroir, de réversibilité exacte entre la veille et le rêve, motif sceptique illustré dans sa plus grande puissance par ce que l’histoire de la philosophie nomme “l’argument du rêve”, qui permet de faire basculer toutes les sensations éveillées dans un rêve possible, et donc de passer du « tout vrai » au « tout faux » ; 2) le deuxième cas s’attache au contraire à un rapport de continuité partielle entre veille et rêve, du fait de la traversée de certaines données intactes de la veille dans le rêve : les passions. On observera dans un récit du poète académicien Gombauld, L’Endimion (1624), une interprétation originale du mythe d’Endymion, le « dormeur perpétuel » qui tire de cette continuité une leçon sur le caractère intrinsèquement imaginaire de l’amour ; 3) le troisième cas consiste là encore en un mouvement de traversée entre les sensations diurnes marquées par la distorsion des stimuli sensoriels et des sensations nocturnes où ces stimuli sont amplifiés et “traduits” dans les images oniriques, hypothèse reprise depuis Aristote dans toute réflexion sur l’intégration des sensations externes comme sur la transformation des impressions d’origine interne ; 4) le cas particulier de ce que le XVIIe siècle considère comme un « rêveur actif », qui prend le nouveau nom de somnambule (qui apparaît en français au XVIIe et en anglais au XVIIIe siècle), et permet donc d’assister en quelque sorte à une illusion du rêve projetée à l’extérieur et rendue visible par les actions du le somnambule, cas qu’on illustrera par une anecdote recueillie par Bonaventure d’Argonne à la fin du siècle.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cf. L’Œuvre nocturne, Paris, Champion, 2005. I have marked in this essay the transition from the Re (...)

1Retracing the history of dreams means retracing the history of very different things: the production of dream images (that is the genesis of the dream), the experience of dreaming, and the interpretation of dreams.1 Depending on the period and the discipline concerned, each of these approaches has predominated in turn. One of the originalities of the period that goes from Montaigne to Leibniz is the importance assumed by the question of the experience of dreaming in what has been called the "Pyrrhonist crisis" (represented in France by Montaigne), which gave rise to variants of the adage "life is a dream" in the literature of the Baroque period in France, England and Spain. The importance of this issue is confirmed in an observation, made by the sociologist Norbert Elias, which is rather sweeping to say the least:

  • 2 Norbert Elias, The Court Society, translation of Die höfische Gesellschaft by Edmund Jephcott, New (...)

[…] It touches again and again one of the central problems characteristic up to our own day of the level of consciousness first reached in the Renaissance. This is the question of the relationship of reality and illusion. It is one of the great paradoxes of this whole epoch that in its course the society of men has extended further than ever before the realm of their control over their world, particularly over what they call Nature, but also over the world of men and over themselves, while simultaneously, over and over again in the most diverse forms, as a standing leitmotiv of this whole period, the question has been raised as to what actually is real, object-oriented or whatever else it may be called, and what merely a human idea, an artificial product, illusion merely ‘subject-oriented’ and in this sense unreal.2

2In this essay, attention will be focussed on the relationships between waking life and life as experienced during dreams. Our aim is to suggest a broad typology of such relationships: first, waking sensations that perfectly mirror sensations in dreams; then the partial continuity of waking sensations that remain intact during sleep; then the anamorphosis of external stimuli in the dream, and finally the inverted exteriorisation of dream sensations in the specific case of the sleepwalker. This typology shows that the apparently simple expression “dream illusion” conceals in fact a considerable complexity.

1. Perfect mirror image: waking and dream sensations are hermetically separated and reversible

3The philosophical tradition of the “argument of the dream” was already long-established at the time of Plato's Theaetetus. In addressing Theaetetus, Socrates refers to it as a dispute “which I fancy you have often heard”:

  • 3 Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, Harvard Unive (...)

The question is asked, what proof you could give if anyone should ask us now, at the present moment, whether we are asleep and our thoughts are a dream, or whether we are awake and talking with each other in a waking condition.3

4From a philosophical viewpoint, there is a privileged relationship between dream, illusion and the senses, in which the case of dreaming is characterized through its continuity with sensorial illusions (as when a stick, immersed in water, appears to be crooked because of the diffraction of light). The dream turns out to be even more effective than the optical illusion in giving grounds for doubting the knowledge provided by the senses, as it is capable of producing a simulacrum not merely of an object, but of a whole world.

5This first case is thus universal falsity, in which the dream illusion gives rise to perfect resemblance and reversibility of the diurnal and nocturnal worlds, of the true sensations of the waking state, corresponding to actually existing external objects, and the “false” or “vain” sensations of the sleepers, which refer to nothing external. In Plato's dialogue, this resemblance is compared by Theaetatus himself to the twin relationship between the lyrical strophe and antistrophe:

  • 4 Ibid.

[…] there is an exact correspondence in all particulars, as between the strophe and antistrophe of a choral song. Take, for instance, the conversation we have just had: there is nothing to prevent us from imagining in our sleep also that we are carrying on this conversation with each other, and when in a dream we imagine that we are relating dreams, the likeness between the one talk and the other is remarkable.4

  • 5 “Different phantasiai come about, too, depending on whether we are asleep or awake. For when we are (...)

6The perfect symmetry between the waking state (upar) and the dreaming state (ónar) in the Outlines of Pyrrhonism leads the philosopher Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 CE) to postulate a radical relativism of the sensations arising in either state, which gives no predominance to the waking state and thus makes this consideration the fourth of the ten modes of sceptical epoché(epokhē).5

  • 6 An Aristotelian expression signifying an internal sense which receives impressions from the externa (...)

7The explanations given for this kind of mirror-image duplication between waking and dreaming may however be extremely diverse: what is important is the opposition between the “slumbering” state of the external senses – due to the “Night of the Senses” – which closes all the gates of a body deprived of its external functions, and the (at least residual) activity of an internal instance, which may, depending on the case, be ‘common’ sense,6 phantasy or the soul. By means of this activity, dreams open up another world, doubling all the sensations of the real world, as Hippocrates notes:

  • 7 Hippocrates, Regimen IV, or Dreams, trans. W.H.S. Jones (1930), Cambridge, MA, Harvard University P (...)

But when the body is at rest, the soul, being set in motion and awake, administers her own household, and of herself performs all the acts of the body. For the body when asleep has no perception; but the soul when awake has cognizance of all things – sees what is visible, hears what is audible, walks, touches, feels pain, ponders. In a word, all the functions of body and of soul are performed by the soul during sleep.7

8There are countless references to this type of relationship in the seventeenth century. Father Nicolas Caussin for example, in 1624, provides a traditional list:

  • 8 Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte (Paris, 1624), II, p. 393: « Quand le corps est assoupi par les cha (...)

When the body is laid fast by the charming sweetnesses of sleep, and the night makes a league with all the actions of the day, the soul makes not any with its operations; it meditates, it reasons, it speaks, it is in action, it negotiates, and without parting from its body flies beyond all Lands and Seas to enjoy a friend. She opens herself with joy, pricks herself with sorrow, interests herself in businesses […]8

9Along the same lines, in the “curious” inquiry concerning neglected areas of knowledge of his Palais des curieux, Béroalde de Verville wrote in 1612:

  • 9 “Souvent en songe on oit, on parle, on voit, on court, on discourt, on entend, on veille, on dort, (...)

Often when dreaming one hears, one speaks, one sees, one runs, one makes a speech, one understands, one is awake, one sleeps, one dreams, one finds oneself in darkness, one enjoys pleasures, one is distressed; in short, one passes through all the errors that the living have in common.9

10The seemingly arbitrary content of the list, which bundles together the superior senses, movement, speech, passions, and even the states of waking, sleeping and dreaming, underlines the global nature of the experience, summed up in the phrase “all the errors that the living have in common” (“toutes les erreurs auxquelles les vivants se rencontrent.”) Note that while “les erreurs des vivants” refer simply to the wanderings of diurnal life, the word “erreurs” contains “the dream argument” in embryonic form: since when dreaming, one experiences everything that those who are awake experience, what they experience could well only consist of the “erreurs” (this time in the sense of illusions) of those who dream. For the capacity of the dream to recreate a world forces us to doubt the certainties of the senses and to see the world as perhaps no more than a dream, as opposed to a waking state on a higher metaphysical level. This is also the idea that lies behind the adage so important in early modern Europe, from Shakespeare to Calderón: “Life is a dream.”

  • 10 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoc (...)

11Paradoxically, the most acute form of this illusion, and even its hyperbolic form, arises in an account of the most humdrum dream, which draws its force from its troubling resemblance to a waking state. This is most strikingly illustrated by the famous dream scene in the second of Descartes's Metaphysical Meditations: “How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of such familiar events – that I am here in my dressing-gown, sitting by the fire – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!”10 It is this scene of an immediate illusion that leads him to doubt the world, because of the dream:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 13 (“Il me semble bien à présent que ce n’est point avec des yeux endormis que je regarde (...)

Yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep!11 

  • 12 Ibid. (“Supposons donc maintenant que nous sommes endormis, et que toutes ces particularités, à sav (...)
  • 13 Ibid., p. 15 (“un certain mauvais génie, non moins rusé et trompeur que puissant, qui a employé tou (...)

12This finally leads to a pretence (“fingam” in the Latin text), as part of the philosophical process, that the world is a dream: “Suppose then that I am dreaming, and that these particulars – that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands – are not true. Perhaps, indeed, I do not even have such hands or such a body at all,”12 and even to a supposition that the dream has been fabricated by a “malicious demon”: “I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”13

  • 14 Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1979, pa (...)

13In this First Meditation, on the basis of the sceptical tradition that Descartes will subsequently strive to refute, the dream is first of all the memory of a dream, and then the opportunity to doubt indications provided by the senses, and then finally the instrument of doubt, as though in an imaginary experiment: first "fingam", then methodical doubt followed by hyperbolic doubt. It is by the means of dreaming that the certainties of the waking state are dismantled from the inside (“these hands, this piece of paper, this fire”), without any specific examination of the concrete particulars of the dream itself. Nothing comparable to the sophisticated examples of Saint Augustine can be found in Descartes’ works, even in the celebrated dreams that he himself experienced in November 1619, which are related by Adrien Baillet in Olympica. As a matter of fact, in his Metaphysical Meditations, Descartes gives no other example of a dream than the scene of the philosopher writing in his room told in the First Meditation. Despite the familiar nature of the content of this dream, or perhaps because of it, the scene is fascinating and powerfully fantastical: we know the philosophical posterity today of the discussion of this immediate sensation of one’s own hand – which includes the striking images of Wittgenstein's essay On Certainty.14

14The illusion in this initial case of duplication between the dreaming and waking sensations can thus be defined as a factor of overall falsity in which, in the absence of the senses, the objects of the world “seen” by the mind's eye are only apparent objects. Two worlds, reality and the dream, which could be described as “homonymic”, form mirror images, separated by the wall of sleep and oblivion, a wall that is both hermetically sealed and extremely thin.

2. Passing through: emotions that are identical in the waking and dreaming states

  • 15 Plato, “Philebus”, 36 E, in Statesman, Philebus, Ion, trans. Harold North Fowler, Cambridge, MA, Ha (...)
  • 16 Passions de l’âme, I, Art. 26, in Œuvres philosophiques, ed. Ferdinand Alquié, Paris, Classiques Ga (...)

15Some experiences do not match up with this perfect “mirror image” relationship: in such cases there is no hermetical separation and resemblance between waking and dreaming, but continuity and partial identity. Unlike the sensorial perceptions of the sleeper, which are “vain” or “false,” his passions, including hunger, thirst, cold, pain, fear and pleasure are effective in the dream, and not apparent. Plato had already asserted that all passions in dreams are real: “Nobody, either sleeping (ónar) or waking (hupar) or insane (mania) or deranged (paraphrosunè), ever thinks he feels pleasure when he does not feel it, and never, on the other hand, thinks he suffers pain when he does not suffer it.”15 Descartes defends the same thesis, in Chapter I, 26 (entitled “The imaginings which depend solely on the fortuitous movement of the spirits may be passions just as truly as the perceptions that depend on the nerves”) of his treatise Passions of the Soul,16 in which the system presented is novel in many ways:

  • 17 Les passions “sont si proches et si intérieures à notre âme qu’il est impossible qu’elle les sente (...)

But we can’t be misled in the same way regarding the passions, in that they are so close and so internal to our soul, that it cannot possibly feel them unless they are truly as it feels them to be. Thus often when asleep, and sometimes even when we are awake, we imagine certain things so vividly that we think we see them before us, or feel them in our body although they are not there at all. But even if we are asleep and dreaming, we cannot feel sad, or moved by any other passion, unless the soul truly has this passion within it.17

16In the dreaming state, the perception of objects is deceptive, as is the soul’s opinion about them, but the passions are true. Pain and pleasure in dreams are two major examples of the identicality of the nature of the emotions in the waking and sleeping states: this singularly complicates the concept of illusion in the dreaming state, and undermines its apparent simplicity. The question of pain, between passion and perception, is the subject of a debate that recurs on a regular basis as new theories are developed: some thinkers consider that pain in a dream is real, and others that it is a sort of pseudo-pain.

17Let us consider once more for example Béroalde de Verville, who argued that all waking experiences are duplicated in dreaming; the question now concerns the “matter” of the actions and inner passions of the dreamer:

  • 18  “Quand on chemine en rêvant et le corps est gisant allongé dans le gouffre du dormir, avec quels p (...)

When one walks in a dream while one's body is prostrate in the depths of sleep, what feet does one borrow from the wandering spirits to take these strange steps? And if, in a dream of war, the dreamer hears a shot from an arquebus that tears open his skin, wounding him and causing him great pain: of what is the arquebus made, and of what new metamorphosis of lead is made the bullet that, painlessly, causes pain to the person who believes he has been hit by it? 18

18The example of the war dream juxtaposes auditive perception (“a shot from an arquebus”), tactile perception (“that tears open his skin, wounding him”) and the sensation of pain (“causing him great pain”). But the crack of the arquebus shot is clearly not real, and the skin of the sleeper is not actually pierced. The paradox of this “bullet that, painlessly, causes pain” thus only relates to the dissociation by the dream of the two extremities of pain, the pain received (which is not really received) and the pain really perceived, i.e. the objective and subjective aspects, the somatic and psychological aspects of the pain. Although Béroalde de Verville raises questions without answering them, the text shows that the Platonic lesson has been learnt: while one can believe one has heard something without really hearing it, and one has touched something without touching it, it is not possible to believe one is hurt without being hurt, because being hurt and believing oneself to be hurt amount to the same thing.

19The case of the “wet dream” (oneirogmos is the Greek medical term) is just as complex as pain: it clearly dissociates an object that is obviously unreal (the absent object of the sexual desire) and the concrete sensation, widely referred to in libertine poetry, of the wet dream. But the wet dream itself also sparks off a debate: it may be seen as a bodily and physiological phenomenon that gives rise to corresponding images in a dream or, on an opposite view, as the effect of dream images on the body. The same phenomenon had already led Saint Augustine to absolve from sin a theologian if he was to experience a wet dream after thinking excessively about the sin of lust for strictly theoretical reasons.

  • 19 Jean Ogier de Gombauld, Endimion. An excellent fancy first composed in French by Monsieur Gombauld. (...)
  • 20 Henry Vaughan, Olor Iscanus. A Collection of Some Select Poems, and Translations, Formerly Written (...)
  • 21 Keats was to take up the challenge in his own Endymion (1818): “it will be a test, a trial of my Po (...)

20The poetry and theatre of the time provide countless examples of the phenomenological slant with which literature tackles the question. The interplay between emotions in real-life and emotions in dreams is of considerable interest in the little-known prose romance about Endymion, entitled L’Endimion (1624), by the Protestant poet Jean Ogier de Gombauld. This minor work by one of the founders of the Académie française has never been republished in France since its second edition in 1626, but it was translated into English in 1639 by Richard Hurst19, and eulogised in a poem by Henry Vaughan, published in 1651.20 The reputation of L'Endimion may have suffered in France because it was seen as an allegory of the poet’s love (under the mask of Endymion) for the Queen Marie de' Médici (as Diana) – as Gombauld was in fact her favourite. Because the work was considered primarily as a poème à clé, its originality in the use of a sleeping hero in the narrative, and the remarkable insights of its reflection on illusion were largely overlooked.21 The work as a whole consists of a romancical expansion of the myth of Diana and Endymion, which is given a very unusual slant. The specific case of the slumbering lover of the goddess Diana invites reflection about the ambivalence of the adjective “imaginary” when applied to the pains and pleasures imagined in a dream : “imaginary” refers to something that is at once unreal and false, in a negative sense, while really taking place in the dreamer’s imagination, in a positive sense. Illusion is no longer simply considered here to be the opposite of reality.

21The main action of the romance is essentially circular. During a lunar eclipse, Pyzandre – who has come to Mount Latmus to attend ritual ceremonies (the inhabitants of Heracleus use the sound of musical instruments to release the moon from its captivity) – encounters his friend Endymion, who had disappeared. After some enigmatic expressions of woe, Endymion relates his adventures. While contemplating the moon night after night on Mount Latmus, Endymion fell in love with her, and finally met her on Earth in the form of the goddess Diana. She bestowed on him an intimacy that was as delightful as it was ambiguous. But after a time, the goddess started avoiding the hero, and the Second Book relates the quest for the now inaccessible Diana by Endymion, assisted by the sorceress Ismena. In the course of this quest, which includes a fantastic voyage through the air, Endymion is taken prisoner by the inhabitants of the town of Albe, and is chosen as the victim of a human sacrifice to Diana. He calls to Ismena for assistance, but she does no more than provide the knife with which the goddess wishes him to be sacrificed: after stabbing himself, Endymion finds himself between life and death, on the banks of the Acheron, which cannot be crossed. This paradoxical state of “limbo” then fades away “like a dream,” and as Endymion opens his eyes he sees before him the veiled moon which has come down to earth. The moon promises him immortality, before the sound of the ceremony for the eclipse causes Endymion to wake up again, which coincides with the plaintive cries heard by Pyzandre at the beginning of the narrative. Pyzandre interprets the whole of his friend's adventures as a dream from which Endymion has been awoken by the sound of cymbals during the ceremony. But in a final twist, Endymion refuses to accept that his love was experienced only in a dream.

22The narrative in fact contains none of the usual hallmarks of the “dream narrative;” there is no clearly defined moment of falling asleep, nor any assurance of a final awakening. The narrative keeps on undermining itself by consigning the previous sequences to the dream state, and advances through a succession of provisional awakenings, referring to the moral topos of terrestrial life as always liable to be revealed as a dream at a subsequent moment of awakening. The narrative as a whole is looped back on itself: the initial ceremony of the eclipse on Mount Latmus is only understood at the end as the event in the waking world that corresponds to the ceremony of the sacrifice of Endymion to Diana in the dream. The two levels of the framework-narrative and the internal narrative converge, while continuing to be dissociated in the minds of the two characters. Endymion and his interlocutor Pyzandre are emblematic of the opposition between illusion and analysis, dreaming and waking, myth and reason, and the logic of ambiguity vs. the logic of contradiction. Endymion is linked to Lethe, while Pyzandre is associated with analysis and truth (alethia). Endymion embodies the call for transcendence in an earthly world marked by universal inconstancy, of which the moon is emblematic, and Pyzandre represents the prosaic counterpoint of scepticism.This philosophical interpretation of the romance is different, but not very far from the poet Henry Vaughan's interpretation of Endymion's adventures as the meditations of the soul:

  • 22 H. Vaughan, op. cit., p. 12.

Nor are they mere inventions, for we
In the same piece find scattered philosophy,
And hidden, dispersed truths, that folded lie
In the dark shades of deep allegory,
So neatly weaved, like arras, they descry
Fables with truth, fancy with history.22

23But this metaphysical reinterpretation of the loves of Diana and Endymion underpins an original psychological thesis concerning the proportion of illusion and imagination that concerns all love affairs in real life. The mythological destiny of Endymion is conducive to paradox: in the romance there is no clear separation between the solid and substantive world of true sensations and emotions of the waking state, and the evanescent dream world. On the contrary, there is a continuity between the two, or – to use a Nervalian term two centuries before the poet used it – an “overflowing” of the dream into real life (“épanchement du songe dans la vie réelle”). The 1624 romance is thus one of the many manifestations of the baroque adage “life is a dream,” but in it the dream is seen as an integral part of the human condition, and not as its mirror image.

  • 23 J. Ogier de Gombauld, Endimion, French edition, p. 50.
  • 24pour ce que l’excès de mon ravissement ne m’avait pas permis d’être à moi, et m’ôtait l’usage de m (...)
  • 25Songes plus beaux, et plus clairs que le jour, et desquels je n’eusse jamais voulu me réveiller”. (...)
  • 26Célestes douceurs, disais-je, délices nompareilles, êtes-vous fausses, ou véritables ? Mais commen (...)

24There is a very concrete example of Gombauld’s position in Endymion’s analysis of his loves with Diana, which was printed in the original French edition opposite an engraving by Crispin de Passe showing Diana leaning over Endymion, asleep in the Latmian cave.23 Endymion explains to Pyzandre that the recollection of Diana’s bounties is almost more powerful than her presence was: “the excesse of (his) rapture depriving (him) of his senses and judgement.”24 For the same reason, Endymion speaks to Pyzandre in praise of the pleasures of dreams, “dreames indeed, more faire, and more resplendent than the day; and such, as truely I never desired to awake from,”25 and expresses the following paradox: “Oh Heavenly contentments, said I, are you counterfeit or reall? But how counterfeit, because so sensible? and how reall, being onely in a dreame?”26

  • 27 Aristotle chooses precisely Endymion as an exception in his considerations on the Gods: “they have (...)
  • 28 Ibid., p. 204. “[…] le couteau de Morphée apporté comme tu as dit, du pays des Cimmériens, séjour o (...)

25Clearly the concept of the imaginary transcends the dichotomy between true and false, as we are dealing here with the paradox of something that is at once counterfeit and sensible, something both real and in a dream. Gombauld’s romance operates on the threshold between the waking scene and the dream scene, and more generally the state of the “perpetual sleeper” is an exception to the fundamental rule of logic that distinguishes between what is “the same” and what is “other.” Aristotle pointed out that one cannot properly say of a sleeping person that he “is” or that he “is not.”27 Expanding this philosophical motif, Gombauld’s narrative makes Endymion into the myth of paradox, which is not ruled by the “law of excluded middle.” The paradox is emblematically expressed by Endymion’s sacrificial knife, made in the “Country of Cimmeriana,” which Pyzandre identifies as a dream knife: “… the Knife of Morpheus, brought as thou say'st from the Countrey of the Cimmeriana, the ordinary residence of slumber, doe of their owne nature worke no other execution, or kill any body otherwise than thou art slaine there with.”28

  • 29 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Second Meditation, op.cit., vol. II, p. 19.
  • 30 Op. cit., p. 200.

26Stabbing oneself in a dream is not dying and is not awakening; it means being lost in limbo. Whereas fifteen years later Descartes would triumphally assert the certainty “that I exist, even if I am asleep all the time,”29 Endymion, whose fate is precisely to be sleeping all the time, has no such certainty: he defines himself as “a man that dreams, sleeps, is dead, or is not at all, as I knew not what path I trod to conduct me into these parts; so likewise knew I not what way my spirit tooke to returne to my body, or how I came to my selfe.”30 The same uncertainty can be seen in the comedy by John Lyly, when Endymion's friend Eumenides and Queen Cinthia – the only one capable of saving Endymion from his magical slumbers by a kiss – have to remind him of his identity, which he had apparently forgotten. To sleep, perchance to dream, is perhaps not to exist.

27The transformation of the real ceremony staged to call back the eclipsed moon into the dreamt-up ceremony of the sacrificial stabbing of Endymion introduces us to a third approach to illusion: this time illusion is not defined as reversibility and accurate reflection, nor is it a partial effective identicality crossing through the two states of waking and sleeping, but as a distorting mirror instead, the metamorphosis or anamorphosis of sensations in the specific realm of slumber.

3. Diffraction: metaphors and distortions of external sensations in dreams

  • 31 Aristotle, “On Prophecy in sleep”, Parva naturalia, 463a10-18, Loeb Classical Library, VIII, Harvar (...)

28This case is simpler. When some sensory input from the outside environment succeeds in entering the realm of dreams, it is transformed there just as light is diffracted when it passes through a liquid. The incorporation into the sleeping state of objective external sounds is again a well-known traditional motif: Aristotle mentions the way sound stimuli are both distorted and amplified when dreaming.31 Dream theoreticians and narrators explain that a knock on the sleeper's door becomes a thunderclap, while the barking of a dog can take the form of the unbearable shouting of a crowd. This metamorphosis of sensation, which can even take the form of synesthesia, takes on a metaphorical coloration: the thunderclap could become the crashing of a cymbal, or alternatively a scarlet colour.

29The same applies to the sense of touch: one motif that recurs in writings from Aristotle to Descartes is that of the fly's bite that becomes a sword blow:

  • 32 Descartes, Treatise on Man, op. cit., vol. II, p. 103; Œuvres et lettres, ed. André Bridoux, Paris, (...)

[...] if it happens that the action of some object affecting the senses can pass to the brain during slumber, it [the soul] will not form the same idea as when awake, but something else more remarkable and more striking: as when sometimes, when we sleep, if we are bitten by a fly, we dream that we have been stabbed with a sword; if we are not sufficiently covered, we dream that we are quite naked; and if we are covered too much, we think we feel a mountain pressing down on us.32

30The translation of the fly bite into a sword blow, of an excessively light blanket into nudity, or of excessively heavy bedclothes into a mountain to be lifted up is not a mere amplification, but an analogy or metaphor.

31The amplification and metaphorical distorsion of the sensory stimulus apply just as much to internal impressions, such as hunger or the impulses of bodily organs, as to external senses. Treatises provide many examples of the so-called “symptomatic” dreams defined by Hippocratic medicine, such as the dream of the leg of stone recounted by Galen, which is the precursor (and in a way the allegory) of the subsequent paralysis of the sleeper, and the dream of mud and filth indicating an excessive abundance of corrupted humours in the body. It is thanks to these images, which translate an organic sensation, that the doctor can use the dream as a symptom of the illness that it represents and prefigures. In each of these cases, the illusion of the dream consists precisely in the making of a metaphor.

  • 33 I tried to collect several cases of this traditional medical interpretation, which I chose to call (...)

32This figuration occurs quite naturally, in accordance with the Galenic theory of the four humours (phlegm, blood, yellow and black bile), in the repertory of images that are specific to dreams related to temperaments: dreams related to the phlegmatic temperament are recognisable through the presence of aquatic images, those of the bilious temperament through images of fire and war, those of the blood temperament through images of festivities and banquets, and those of the melancholic temperament through dark and funereal images: this “key of humours” reflects the received medical wisdom on the interpretation of dreams in the seventeenth century. Thus the dream illusion can be considered in both cases as a conversion of external or internal sensory data through a metaphorical process33.

4. Inside out: The special case of the sleepwalker, an active dreamer.

  • 34 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605), Book I, chapter XXXV; Shakespeare, Macbeth (1 (...)
  • 35 “je le trouvai insensible avec les yeux toujours ouverts et immobiles.” [Noël] Bonaventure d’Argonn (...)

33A fourth mode of relationship between the senses and the dream illusion is illustrated by the figure of the sleepwalker. In the classical age the somnambulist was seen as a sleeper who acts out his dream, without his motor functions being inhibited as they normally are during sleep. Coming from the Middle Age, the singular figure of the sleepwalker has received its letters of nobility through Cervantes and Shakespeare.34 There is a detailed description of sleepwalking in Mélanges d’histoire et de littérature by Bonaventure d’Argonne, published in 1700: the anecdote describes the observation by a group of friends of the nocturnal wanderings of Seigneur Agostino, who rises from his bed, dresses himself, “his eyes still open and motionless”35 and carries out a number of well-coordinated actions (opening a case and searching through its contents, before closing it), including riding a horse and playing the harpsichord:

  • 36 “Il traversa toute la cour qui était très grande, et alla droit à l’écurie. Il y entra, caressa son (...)

He crossed the whole of the courtyard, which was very large, and went straight to the stable. He entered, patted his horse, harnessed it and set to saddling it: but as he did not find the saddle in its customary place, he seemed very troubled, like a man who has been short-changed. He mounted the horse, and galloped up to the door of the house, which he found to be closed. He dismounted, and after picking up a stone knocked repeatedly against one of the door panels. After several vain efforts, he remounted the horse, rode it to the drinking place, which was at the other end of the courtyard, made it drink, went to tie it to a post, and returned to the dwelling quite calmly. He became more attentive to the noise made by the servants in the kitchen, approached the door, and put his ear against the keyhole. Then suddenly going over to the other side, he entered a low-ceilinged room where there was a billiard table. He went to and fro several times around the table, adopting all the postures of a player. He then went to place his hands on a harpsichord, of which he was quite a good player, and he made some noise. Finally after exercising himself thus for two hours, he went back up to his chamber, and threw himself fully clothed on to his bed, where we found him the next morning at 9 o'clock in the same posture in which we had left him.36

34The singular relationship here between illusion and the senses is described precisely, particularly the opposition between sight and hearing: the sleepwalker does not see any of the people present, but he hears the noises made by the servants which “se mêlent à ses songes.” He seems however not to notice the noise he is himself making by playing random notes on the harpsichord, and instead hears the piece he is playing (presumably correctly) in his dream. The illusion consists of miming rather than performing actions. The unintended spectacle provided by the sleepwalker is a pantomime. The world of his dream is thus exceptional in that it is accessible to an external spectator: by deduction from the pantomime gestures, the spectator is able to fill in the missing elements, understanding the game Seigneur Agostino is playing (from his postures around the billiard table), even though no balls are used. Watching a somnambulist is rather like looking through the wall of sleep, which has become transparent, and seeing how a dreamer “perceives” and “acts” in the dream scene. Ordinarily concealed by the body, it appears as though overlaid on the waking scene. The disturbing strangeness of the sleepwalker arises from this “inside out” effect, which triggers a form of de-realization of the sleepwalker himself. The sleepwalker becomes a kind of automaton-like body who cannot see what is before his very eyes, but who projects in broad daylight the night-time existence of the senses that can ordinarily only be perceived in absentia and retrospectively.

35It may now be possible to make out several kinds of meanings behind the vague expression “dream illusion”, in connection with the senses: the Philosopher of the Metaphysical Meditations, confronting each sensation with its possible mirror-image dream counterpart, the erotic dreamer experiencing in his flesh, after awakening, effects identical to those felt by a lover; Gombauld’s Endymion, illustrating the inextricable interweaving of truth and illusion which is at stake in all real passion, and lastly the Sleepwalker, walking with eyes wide open in a visible dream, are four characters who may be chosen as emblematic of the typology of the various relationships between dreams and the senses, and of some of the paradoxes which are often bundled together in the apparently simple category of “dream illusion.”

36The purpose of the typology presented in this essay was to provide concrete illustrations of this plurality, but does not claim to be exhaustive. In the course of the seventeenth century, the interpretation of divine or demonic dreams would pose the question of the interfering of the senses differently, and the sensory illusions of dreamers coming from other cultures, such as peoples from New France described in the Jesuit Relations, would offer new, challenging theological and anthropological counterparts to these psycho-physiological approaches of dreams.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Cf. L’Œuvre nocturne, Paris, Champion, 2005. I have marked in this essay the transition from the Renaissance songe to what became known in France only at the end of the eighteenth century as the rêve, defined primarily as a form of thought that is degraded by the condition of the sleeping body.

2 Norbert Elias, The Court Society, translation of Die höfische Gesellschaft by Edmund Jephcott, New York, Pantheon Books, 1983, p. 250-251.

3 Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1989 [1924], vol. VII, p. 63.

4 Ibid.

5 “Different phantasiai come about, too, depending on whether we are asleep or awake. For when we are awake we do not imagine what we imagine when we are asleep, nor when we are asleep do we imagine what we imagine when awake, so that whether the phantasiai are the case or are not the case is not absolute but relative, that is, relative to being asleep or awake. It is fair to say, then, that when asleep we see things that are not the case in the waking state, though not absolutely not the case. For they are the case in our sleep, just as what we see in our waking state is the case, though not in our sleep.” Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. Benson Mates, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, chap. XIV, “The ten modes [of epoché],” p. 104.

6 An Aristotelian expression signifying an internal sense which receives impressions from the external senses.

7 Hippocrates, Regimen IV, or Dreams, trans. W.H.S. Jones (1930), Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 421-422.

8 Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte (Paris, 1624), II, p. 393: « Quand le corps est assoupi par les charmantes douceurs du sommeil et que la nuit fait une trêve à toutes les actions du jour, cette âme n’en fait point à ses opérations : elle médite, elle raisonne, elle parle, elle agit, elle négocie, et sans partir de son corps, elle vole par-dessus les terres, et les mers, pour aborder un ami : elle s’épanouit de joie, elle se pique de douleur, elle s’intéresse dans les affaires… »; The Holy Court in five tomes […], trans.. Sir Thomas Hawkins, the fourth edition, London, 1678, p. 743.

9 “Souvent en songe on oit, on parle, on voit, on court, on discourt, on entend, on veille, on dort, on songe, on se trouve en ténèbres, on jouit de plaisirs, on est affligé ; bref on passe par toutes les erreurs auxquelles les vivants se rencontrent”. Béroalde de Verville, Palais des curieux, Paris, 1612, chap. 3, p. 31 (our translation).

10 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985, vol. II, p. 12-13 (« Combien de fois m’est-il arrivé de songer, la nuit, que j’étais en ce lieu, que j’étais habillé, que j’étais auprès du feu, quoique je fusse tout nu dedans mon lit ? »).

11 Ibid., p. 13 (“Il me semble bien à présent que ce n’est point avec des yeux endormis que je regarde ce papier ; que cette tête que je remue n’est point assoupie ; que c’est avec dessein et de propos délibéré que j’étends cette main, et que je la sens : ce qui arrive dans le sommeil ne me semble point si clair ni si distinct que tout ceci. Mais, en y pensant soigneusement, je me ressouviens d’avoir été souvent trompé, lorsque je dormais, par de semblables illusions”).

12 Ibid. (“Supposons donc maintenant que nous sommes endormis, et que toutes ces particularités, à savoir, que nous ouvrons les yeux, que nous remuons la tête, que nous étendons les mains, et choses semblables, ne sont que de fausses illusions ; et pensons que peut-être nos mains, ni tout notre corps, ne sont pas tels que nous les voyons”).

13 Ibid., p. 15 (“un certain mauvais génie, non moins rusé et trompeur que puissant, qui a employé toute son industrie à me tromper”).

14 Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1979, passim.

15 Plato, “Philebus”, 36 E, in Statesman, Philebus, Ion, trans. Harold North Fowler, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 2001 [1925], vol. VIII, p. 291. This is also the case in the poem by Vaughan considered further down.

16 Passions de l’âme, I, Art. 26, in Œuvres philosophiques, ed. Ferdinand Alquié, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 1963, tome III. Que les imaginations qui ne dépendent que du mouvement fortuit des esprits, peuvent être d’aussi véritables passions que les perceptions qui dépendent des nerfs.

17 Les passions “sont si proches et si intérieures à notre âme qu’il est impossible qu’elle les sente sans qu’elles soient véritablement telles qu’elle les sent. Ainsi souvent lorsqu’on dort, […] on imagine si fortement certaines choses qu’on pense les voir devant soi ou les sentir en son corps, bien qu’elles n’y soient aucunement ; mais, encore qu’on soit endormi et qu’on rêve, on ne saurait se sentir triste ou ému de quelque autre passion, qu’il ne soit très vrai que l’âme a en soi cette passion.” Descartes, Passions de l’âme, article 26, Œuvres, ed. Ferdinand Alquié, t. III, p. 973; Passions of the Soul, I, 26, in The Philosophical Writings, op. cit., vol I, 1985, p. 338.

18  “Quand on chemine en rêvant et le corps est gisant allongé dans le gouffre du dormir, avec quels pieds empruntés des esprits vagants fait-on des pas différents ? et si lorsque le songe exerce l’esprit guerrier, le songeant oit une arquebusade qui lui ouvre la peau, le blessant avec abondance de douleur : de quoi est cette arquebuse, et de quelle nouvelle métamorphose de plomb est faite la balle qui sans douleur fait douleur à celui qui pense en avoir reçu le coup ?” Béroalde de Verville, op. cit., p. 31 (our translation).

19 Jean Ogier de Gombauld, Endimion. An excellent fancy first composed in French by Monsieur Gombauld. And now elegantly interpreted, by Richard Hurst Gentleman, London, 1639.

20 Henry Vaughan, Olor Iscanus. A Collection of Some Select Poems, and Translations, Formerly Written by Mr. Henry Vaughan Silurist, London, Printed by T.W. for Humphrey Moseley, 1651, p. 77-78.

21 Keats was to take up the challenge in his own Endymion (1818): “it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination, and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance, and fill them with poetry.” Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817. Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Grant F. Scott, Cambridge, MA, and London, Harvard University Press, 2002, p.42.

22 H. Vaughan, op. cit., p. 12.

23 J. Ogier de Gombauld, Endimion, French edition, p. 50.

24pour ce que l’excès de mon ravissement ne m’avait pas permis d’être à moi, et m’ôtait l’usage de mes sens, et de mon jugement” (French edition, p. 28).

25Songes plus beaux, et plus clairs que le jour, et desquels je n’eusse jamais voulu me réveiller”. Ibid., p. 29.

26Célestes douceurs, disais-je, délices nompareilles, êtes-vous fausses, ou véritables ? Mais comment fausses, puisque vous êtes si sensibles ? Et comment véritables, puisque ce n’est qu’en songeant ?” Ibid., p. 29-30.

27 Aristotle chooses precisely Endymion as an exception in his considerations on the Gods: “they have always been conceived as, at all events, living, and therefore living actively, for we cannot suppose that they are always asleep like Endymion”, Nicomachean Ethics, X, VIII, 7, Loeb Classical Library XIX, trans. H. Rackham, p. 623.

28 Ibid., p. 204. “[…] le couteau de Morphée apporté comme tu as dit, du pays des Cimmériens, séjour ordinaire du Sommeil, de leur nature, ne fait mourir personne, qu’en la façon que tu en es mort.” (op. cit., p. 249). Gombauld may have borrowed this idea from the play Endimion, The Man in the Moon (1591) by John Lyly.

29 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Second Meditation, op.cit., vol. II, p. 19.

30 Op. cit., p. 200.

31 Aristotle, “On Prophecy in sleep”, Parva naturalia, 463a10-18, Loeb Classical Library, VIII, Harvard University Press, p. 377: “… men think that it is lightening and thundering, when there are only faint echoes in their ears”.

32 Descartes, Treatise on Man, op. cit., vol. II, p. 103; Œuvres et lettres, ed. André Bridoux, Paris, Gallimard, « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade », 1958, p. 870-71 (“s’il arrive que l’action de quelque objet qui touche les sens puisse passer jusqu’au cerveau pendant le sommeil, elle n’y formera pas la même idée que pendant la veille, mais quelque autre plus remarquable et plus sensible : comme quelquefois, quand nous dormons, si nous sommes piqués par une mouche, nous songeons qu’on nous donne un coup d’épée ; si nous ne sommes pas du tout assez couverts, nous nous imaginons être tout nus ; et si nous le sommes quelque peu trop, nous pensons être accablés d’une montagne”.)

33 I tried to collect several cases of this traditional medical interpretation, which I chose to call the “key of humors” (“clé des humeurs”), in F. Dumora, op. cit., First Part, chapter X, p. XX.

34 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605), Book I, chapter XXXV; Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606), in Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986, Act V, scene I.

35 “je le trouvai insensible avec les yeux toujours ouverts et immobiles.” [Noël] Bonaventure d’Argonne (1634-1704), Mélanges d’histoire et de littérature recueillis par M. de Vigneul Marville, Rouen, Antoine Maurry, tome 2, 1700, p. 243.

36 “Il traversa toute la cour qui était très grande, et alla droit à l’écurie. Il y entra, caressa son cheval, le brida et se mit en devoir de le seller : mais n’ayant pas trouvé la selle à l’endroit ordinaire, il parut fort inquiété, et comme un homme qui n’a pas son compte. Il monta à cheval, et galopa jusqu’à la porte de la maison qu’il trouva fermée. Il descendit de cheval, et ayant pris un caillou il frappa à coups redoublés contre l’un des battants. Après plusieurs efforts inutiles, il remonta sur son cheval, le conduisit à l’abreuvoir, qui était à l’autre bout de la cour, le fit boire, l’alla attacher à un poteau, et s’en revint au logis fort tranquillement. Au bruit que les Valets faisaient dans la cuisine, il devint plus attentif, s’approcha de la porte, et mit l’oreille au trou de la serrure. Puis passant tout d’un coup de l’autre côté, il entra dans une salle basse où il y avait un Billard. Il fit plusieurs allées et venues autour du jeu, et toutes les postures d’un joueur. Delà il alla mettre les mains sur un Clavecin, dont il jouait assez bien, et y fit un peu de désordre. Enfin après deux heures d’exercice, il remonta à sa chambre, et se jeta tout habillé sur son lit, où nous le trouvâmes le lendemain à neuf heures du matin en la même posture que nous l’avions laissé.” Ibid., p. 243-246 (our translation).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Florence Dumora (Université Paris-Diderot et CERILAC), « Dream and Sensory Illusions in Seventeenth-century France », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 30 | 2016, mis en ligne le 06 février 2017, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/1484 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1484

Haut de page

Auteurs

Florence Dumora (Université Paris-Diderot

Florence Dumora a publié L’Œuvre nocturne (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2005), une étude sur le rêve au XVIIe siècle, ainsi que de nombreux articles consacrés à l’histoire des conceptions et des figurations du for intérieur (mémoire, imagination, curiosité, passions, mensonge…) et à des notions de théorie littéraire et esthétique qui peuvent leur être liées. Ancienne Normalienne (Ulm) et professeur agrégée de Lettres Modernes, elle appartient au groupe de recherche CERILAC et enseigne à l’université Paris-Diderot Paris 7 depuis 2000.

CERILAC)

Haut de page
  • Revues.org