Dreaming, Motion, Meaning: Onieric Transport in Early Modern Europe

Dreaming, Motion, Meaning: Onieric Transport in Early Modern Europe

Mary Baine Campbell

The history of theorizing about the meaning of dreams is an ancient one, and many of its problematics remain the same as they were for Aristotle in his treatises on Sleeping and Waking or Divination of Dreams, especially the issue of whether dreaming is primarily a biological or a spiritual phenomenon. But the dream is also a limit a case for issues of language, representation and, behind these, the ethically large arena of truth and its sources.

In the early modern period, a historically specific range of reported dreams was accompanied by the theorizing of societies then in the throes of profound cultural revolutions. Both the dreams and the theorizing (about images, imagination, and language as well as dreams per se) produced discussions in contexts different from our own with Freud. The association in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of dreaming with real motion—of the spiritual body as well as of the mind—gave it valences at once with witchcraft, vision, prophecy, and non-urban societies of the New World and Africa; its status as one of a number of consequential versions of metaphor (along with alchemy and the Transubstantiation of the eucharistic host) doomed it to the epistemological sidelines of an era obsessed with rhetorical housecleaning in the name of scientific "truth." At the crossroads of problematics specific to an era parent to our own stands Descartes, whose practice of natural philosophy began in a dream, whose reveries became the staging ground of "Cartesian dualism," and who believed, as witches did, that the spirit moved in logical independence from the sieve of delusion we call the body.

Mary Baine Campbell's project worked towards a book including chapters on the fate of metaphor, the dreams of early modern mathematicians, the anthropological displacement of dream activity onto New World and peasant cultures, the development of an "oneiric private sphere" in which dream speaks only of private feeling, the problem of testimony, and the exclusion of dream from "knowledge."

  • Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 1999); paperback, Spring 2004.
  • "Alternative Planet: Kepler's Somnium and the New World," in The Art of Seventeenth-Century Science, ed. Claire Jowett (Ashgate House Press, 2002). (Expands part of Wonder and Science Ch. 4.)
  • "The Nude Monster in the Costume Book," for Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, eds. Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger (Medieval Institute Publications, 2002).