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Lincoln Dreamt He Died
The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud
By Andrew Burstein
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2013 Andrew Burstein
All rights reserved.
GEORGE WASHINGTON APPEARS BEFORE BRYAN FAIRFAX
Though there are not many natural appearances more familiar to us than DREAMING, there are few which we less understand.
— James Beattie, Dissertations Moral and Critical(1783)
Dreams and foreboding have been mystifyingly linked throughout history. We sense, amid a dream disturbance, that we are inadequate for the task of the moment. Without mobility we feel vulnerable. We know then that the mind is dangerous to the body, that in its accidental impulses it incites us to believe what purely rational thought wants us to deny. In short, life in the dark adds a strange new wrinkle to everyday uncertainties.
Before the modern age, as the last embers burned before total darkness took over, people performed rituals. Not our rituals of brushing the teeth or applying lotion to the skin. They combed the lice out of their hair, checked to see that no heat source would set their home on fire, and hunted down bedbugs. If they could afford it, they slept on mattresses stuffed with horse-tail hair, in beds framed on all sides with decorative curtains. If they prayed, and most did, they appealed for divine protection from mortal threats that loomed as they let down their guard by shutting off their attentive minds for untold hours:
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I shall die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This eighteenth-century American children's prayer bespoke a very real possibility. The phrase "dead of night" did not enter the English vocabulary idly.
Philadelphia, June 15, 1738. Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette reports "a most melancholy account" of a five-year-old boy who hanged himself. He was discovered when a younger sibling was heard crying out, "Brother won't speak to me." It was thought that the boy had been privy to a conversation about the executions of slaves for poisoning their master, and it got into his head that he should see what it was like, having little concept of death. "It is said, that he dreamt much of that Execution the Night before, and telling his Dream in the Morning, added, And I shall die to Day," which was not then regarded. The unspoken moral here could be that dreams, when shared, were not to be left unheeded. They testified to something — but what?
Before attending Harvard in the mid-1760s, twenty-one-year-old Silas Bigelow of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, taught Latin. He had broken his ankle, and it was poorly set. For months Silas walked everywhere with a cane. He was acutely conscious of his debility when he wrote in his diary about going swimming with "ye scholars"; and when his unconscious was in command of his thoughts, he knew precisely where he had laid his "staff" so that he could get back to his horse:
This night I dreamed I was riding along, presently came to Doct. Porters house. I got off and went in (setting aside my staff by ye side of ye door) and none were at home but Mrs Porter. She said ye Doct. was gone half a hundred miles. I walked about ye house considerable. She seemed very glad to see me.
At this point, he is walking without needing assistance. Does he really require a doctor? He is feeling welcome, cared for, and free to move about. Then, "just as I was going away she gave me some bread and cheese to put in my pocket." Mrs. Porter's generosity adds to the level of comfort the dreamer is feeling.
All at once, something changes. "I went out and my horse was broke loose and was feeding in the street." (Chaos, temporary loss of control.) Regaining the horse, young Silas rides to the home of "Revd. Mr Lockwood," who is "glad to see me and talked considerable." Silas makes small talk with the preacher. All seems to be going well, until another sudden, uninvited event occurs, presenting challenges and requiring action:
There came up a shower of rain. I ran to take off my saddle, and as I run I tried to jump over ye gate (which was about four or five feet high) but could not quite, so I opened it, fetched in my saddle, and a little afterward as I was sitting, Miss Lockwood brought me a letter directed to me but had never been sent to me.
We all know this kind of dream sequence: we feel we are being tested. Silas has to gauge the height of the gate; he has to deal with a surprise letter. Wait. Is the letter what he thinks it is? Neither can he figure out the contours of his immediate environment or the size and volume of the letter in his hand: "I opened it, then it seemed like a book. I opened it, found some copper, one piece of silver, then one of the new-fashioned things to wear about ye neck." What's going on? Nothing is making sense, because this is that species of dream that presents one puzzle after the next.
While he copes with the absurd, the diarist tries to put everything in orderly language as his dreaming self unpacks the mysterious letter/book: "There was many other things to wear and I thought some more money down at ye bottom, while I knew not who sent it, but it was some of my good friends."
Is he anxious about money? Perhaps.
And then, the dream's inconclusive final scene: "Mr Lockwood's two puellas [Latin for young daughters] I thought looked very smiling on me, so I began to fix up to go to Deacon May's, intending to lodge there, but I waked before I set out."
The language may sound as foreign as the life he leads, but Silas Bigelow's dream, like those of us moderns, resists narrative (or at least a thorough and logical one). The plot is a series of loosely connected fragments that all seem to involve, on some level, the desire for acceptance and stability of place. The physical pain of a badly broken ankle adds intensity to the young man's quest for emotional steadiness. We can read his satisfaction when people talk to him easily and engage with him in earnest, but we are hard-pressed to glean more from his diary.
All history knows about Silas is that he subsequently graduated from Harvard, was ordained as a minister in the town of Paxton, outside Worcester, and died at the age of thirty. His dream is of a piece with others of his time, and ours today, in the way it mixes positive and negative sensations, selfhood and a loss of power, and describes movement without settled purpose — he never quite knows where he is going or why. Cataloguing the components of a dream such as this, noting the dreamer's awkwardness, if not embarrassment, we can start to gauge how the exhibition of a dream plays a role in personality development.
To Silas, the dream simply interrupts more useful thought. Because he is young and single, and has no plan to publicize his dream, he contributes plenty of raw data without fear of appearing psychologically unfit, but in no way does he indicate that dream content is reckoned meaningful in his world.
To Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), dream content did matter. Some of it directly prodded him to monitor his behavior toward fellow human beings.
Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a celebrated healer. He established himself in Philadelphia as a young man and for decades trained doctors at the University of Pennsylvania. As a clinician, he treated many of the famous and many unknown, in what was for a time America's most populous, politically central, and culturally significant city.
In 1780, amid some of the most uncertain days of the Revolutionary struggle, Rush fell ill with "break bone" (dengue) fever. During his convalescence, he dreamt that a poor woman had come to see him, begging him to attend to her husband. But Rush was feeling so exhausted that he sent her to another doctor. She protested: "O! Sir (said she lifting up her hands) you don't know how much you owe to your poor patients. It was decreed that you should die by the fever which lately attacked you, but the prayers of your poor patients ascended to heaven." The dreamer awoke in tears.
As a scientist, he had been taught to reject superstitious belief and wrote that dreams were rooted in "obvious physical principles." The dengue fever — and nothing of supernatural character — had brought on the memorable dream that Rush worked into his late-in-life autobiography. The experience "left a deep and lasting impression on my mind," he said. "It encreased my disposition to attend to the poor, and never, when I could not serve them, to treat them in an uncivil manner." A mid-twentieth-century Harvard psychiatrist who weighed in on the dream interpreted it to mean that Rush was anxious to return to his clinical practice. For our purposes, it is more interesting as an example of disease and mortality as spectacle in early America. As he sat with his patients, grateful that he was valued by them, Rush persuaded himself that he made a tangible difference in their lives.
Of the dreams he wrote down (more of which we will see in chapter 2), there were those that played on, and others that allayed, a sense of guilt in bearing witness to human suffering. The characters Rush's brain produced were often dead persons resurrected, and their reanimation was a transparent means of reshaping his personal history so that it communicated hope.
He taught, among other subjects, nervous physiology. For him and for most of his medical colleagues, the science of sleep commanded individuals to eat the right kinds of foods at appropriate intervals in order to refresh their spirits. The widely owned popular guide Domestic Medicine (first published in 1769) urged moderation. It recommended taking "sufficient exercise in the open air; to avoid strong tea or coffee; next, to eat a light supper; and lastly, to lie down with a mind as cheerful and serene as possible." Rush affirmed in his Commonplace Book that the "moral powers" were restored after a night's sleep: "They recover ... in solitude." He firmly believed that nothing gave more advantage than "consulting our morning pillow in cases where there is a doubt or what is right, or duty." Still, he resisted granting dreams more authority than the science of his time allowed.
Owing as much to his central location and amiability as to his medical knowledge, Rush was often the "go-to guy" for philosophic acquaintances. In the autumn of 1799, one year before his election as president, Thomas Jefferson wrote from Monticello to his Philadelphia friend concerning the nature of dreaming. "Do we dream more in age than in infancy?" the Virginian posed. Rush believed so, at least according to the lecture notes he left behind. But Jefferson had other ideas on this small point. "I suspect not," he answered his own question. "Dreams seem to be the consequence of some embarrassment in the animal system. A supper, or the undigested dregs of a dinner interrupt our sleep with dreams, but when all the functions of life are perfectly performed, sound sleep seems to be the consequence in every age." At least in believing that there was an inextricable connection between diet and quality of sleep, Jefferson and Dr. Rush were on the same page.
Rush reviewed his own medical cases as well as those of physicians over the ages when he gleaned theories of human nature in the context of nervous physiology and biological functions. On this basis, he understood sleep to be chiefly a loss of motion in all the muscles (which were otherwise under the influence of the will), a suspension of sensation (hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling), and a slowing of "involuntary motions" (respiration). In pathological terms, he judged the life of the mind during sleep as a form of manic incoherency akin to hallucination: "Dreaming may be considered a low grade of delirium," he wrote, "and delirium as a high grade of dreaming."
Delirium was not all. Physicians of the Revolutionary era drew analogies between the dream state and mental distractedness or insanity. The passivity of the mind during sleep, and disruption of communication between the brain's sensorium (nerve terminus) and the rest of the body, left the mind susceptible. Some believed that a dreamer, like a madman, acted out the role of another, who was not himself (a strange new self having awakened in sleep). Others emphasized nightmares, wherein the new (altered or invented) persona embodied secret fears or hidden panic. No one was quite sure what was going on.
Thomas Arnold, author of Observations on the Nature, Kinds, Causes, and Prevention of Insanity, Lunacy, or Madness, wrote of a species of mental disease that he called "ideal Madness." A person was so diagnosed who could not distinguish the real from the ideal, who lacked a clear sense of his physical environment. "The mind is nearly in the same state as that of a person in a dream," Dr. Arnold asserted. "He has a world of images within itself." For normal people, self-restraint in the waking hours was the prescribed means of resisting the stuff of dreams and achieving mental order; moderation in all phases of one's daily routine (especially diet and resting on one's side) could help recover the kind of sleep that was most desired — dreamless sleep. The madman had it much worse: if his senses were not proactively restored, he was doomed to exist in that imagination-rich otherworld all the time.
A close cousin to insanity in this uncertain time of medical reasoning was the unusual, embarrassing, or simply unacceptable sexual practices doctors read about or came across in their communications with patients. Special attention was paid to masturbation. In A Guide to Old Age, or a Cure for the Indiscretions of Youth (1795), Dr. William Brodum felt compelled to address the "abuse of amorous pleasures" among recent college graduates. Citing the venerable ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, he discussed a disorder that arose from "some defect in the spinal marrow" and revealed itself in unhygienic moments: "Every time they go to stool or have occasion to urine, they shed a great quantity of seminal liquor." These young masturbators, Brodum said, "are incapable of procreation, though they frequently dream of the act of coition." He added that those with active sex dreams tended to appear old for their age, "frail, effeminate, benumbed, lazy, stupid." Didactic medicine, lost in its own self-righteousness, was bent on changing behavior through shaming. With other avenues of understanding behavior closed off, dreaming was seen as a sign of abnormal impulses.
Rush did not shy from discussing sex or anything else. He inferred that it was impossible to dream of anything that did not preexist in the mind. As memory (what at some point in the past existed in the waking state) became excited, old ideas revived. Excitation explained sexual stimulation during sleep, which he described to his students in terms of the male-specific "wet" dream: "The sexual appetite acquires strength in a Dream. This is proved by the Seminal emissions which take place in Sleep — and which never takes place from the base influence of the will in the waking State." He meant that a man of morals could not mentally see his way to orgasm while asleep unless reduced to the dream state.
In 1786, John F. Mifflin, a Philadelphia lawyer in his late twenties, wrote down an intense, active dream. It concerned a student at Princeton, James Gibson, of whom he was excessively fond. Either for reasons of privacy or literary convention, Mifflin and Gibson had agreed to refer to each other as "Leander" (Mifflin) and "Lorenzo" (Gibson) when they kept their respective diaries. At any rate, Mifflin fully intended to show Gibson his diary when they reunited
"Dreamt a very odd dream last night," Mifflin began. "I thought Lorenzo & I (& I know not whether there was another person present) were in a very small boat inside of a long kind of pier-wharf which was a great way into the river."
This is a dream about a physical struggle that undoubtedly reflects an emotional one. "I thought we had neither oar paddle or anything else to guide our course & we were driving fast into the current which was very strong." He tried to find his way back to the pier, came close to succeeding, but was then pushed away again, "the people on the shore all the time hallowing to us & very anxious for our safety." Finding the pier, he took charge, climbing back up — it was "very high," like the gate in Silas's dream — and pulled his friend "Lorenzo" up after him. But then he suddenly noticed something about Lorenzo: "He seemed to be stark naked & as we were running along hand in hand to the place where his cloaths were — I awaked — greatly agitated by the danger from which we seemed to have escaped."
Excerpted from Lincoln Dreamt He Died by Andrew Burstein. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Burstein. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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