Wednesday, November 4, 2015
A History of Dreams, Visions, Apparitions By A Brierre de Boismont 1855
A History of Dreams, Visions, Apparitions By Alexandre-Jacques-Francois Brierre de Boismont 1855
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At every epoch in the history of man—in the most opposite latitudes—under the most diverse governments—among all religions—we constantly find the same belief in ghosts and apparitions. How has so universal an opinion been established? Its source must evidently be sought in physical organization. In fact, if we study man in a physiological point of view, we perceive that he is governed by an irresistible desire for the unknown, which most generally exhibits itself in a love for the marvellous. The savage, who dreams of the Great Spirit, and of boundless hunting-grounds—the man of the Middle Ages, who kneels on the threshold of the purgatory of St. Patrick— the Arab, who wanders amid the enchanted palaces of the Thousand and One Nights—the Indian, who is absorbed in the incarnations of Brahma—the inhabitant of the civilized world, who, while professing to believe nothing, secretly consults a pythoness, or asks of magnetism what it cannot give—all obey this one desire to believe in something.
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On a superficial view, we are surprised that opinions which so strongly resemble each other should have acquired so much power, and are tempted to inquire whether we are made up of error, the puppets of illusions; but looking deeper into the question, we perceive that they are but a deviation from the two great laws of our existence—the knowledge of God, and of ourselves.
History and tradition agree on this point, that man came from the hands of his Creator pure, but free. Whilst reason guided him, error and superstition slept; but as soon as the abuse of liberty produced a forgetfulness of his origin, and of its inteation, his passions, no longer restrained, misled him; his mind hecame more and more bewildered. On the one side, tormented by the recollection of the point whence he started; on the other, led away by imagination, he plunged into a world of chimeras.
Imagination unceasingly strives to break the links which enchain her to reason; when that is accomplished, there are no fables, no strange beliefs, no singular illusions, no wild dreams that she will not disseminate. Bacon says we would rather believe than examine; and this disposition is powerfully shown in the infancy of the human mind. Few epochs have been so favorable to the triumphs of the imagination, as the Middle Ages; all kinds of fantastic creations seem there to have assembled. The air is filled with strange birds—the earth is overrun with terrible animals—the seas are peopled with monstrous fish; beyond the limits of the known world, are beautiful countries, new terrestrial paradises. Such beliefs, developed amidst the incursions of barbarians, the devastations of the earth, and the terrors of the end of the world, suggested the idea of an invisible power, which nothing could resist. Thus prepared, people listened with avidity to histories of spirits, and of sorcerers, the reciter frightening himself no less than his auditors. The explanation given by Malebranche, of the manner in which such opinions obtained credit, appears so just that it naturally merits a place here. A herdsman relates the adventures of the Sabbath, after supper, to his wife and his children. His imagination being somewhat exalted by the fumes of wine, he speaks with force and animation. Doubtless, the wife and children tremble with fear, convinced of the truth of all they have heard. It may be a husband, or a father, who speaks of what he has seen, of what he has done; they love and respect, why should they not believe him? These recitals, deeply graven on their memories, accumulate; their fears have passed away, but their convictions remain; finally, curiosity overcomes them. They anoint themselves; they go to rest; in their dreams they see the ceremonies of the Sabbath. On rising, they relate their visions; they are resolved on belief, and he whose imagination is most vivid soon arranges the fanciful history of the Sabbath. Here we have at once sorcerers created by the herdsman, and they will make a host of others, unless fear prevents their reciting similar stories.
Such, in fact, is the origin of a multitude of errors. Once admitted, they are repeated, then systematized, then reduced to doctrines, which are introduced into the mind amongst its earliest ideas, bring into subjection the finest understandings, and persist for ages, until reason, reasserting her rights, drives back imagination within proper limits.
When entire nations accept erroneous ideas as facts, and teach them by lessons, books, pictures, sculptures—in a word, by all the surroundings of social life—they become such that no one can overcome them without divine aid. The great men of the age partake to a certain extent of the opinions and prejudices of their contemporaries; but these false notions have no effect on their conduct. The representatives of a necessary and useful idea—its incarnation, if I may so express myself—their mission is providential. They are driven by an irresistible impulse to do as they do, and their actions assert the development of the highest faculties of the human mind.
Let us apply these principles to the subject of our work, with the aid of some ideas borrowed from psychology. The outward world affects us, it invades all the senses, peoples the brain with millions of images, which an emotion, a passion, an abstraction, can suddenly reproduce with all their variety and diversity of coloring. Hence the desire that all have to feast on images. These pictured reminiscences, which impress us in two different modes, according to which they appear to us false or real, constitute the phenomena of hallucinations. But the senses are not the only sources of our ideas: some are derived from the soul, from God; these are general ideas, pure perceptions, which cannot be pictured; they only enter the region of hallucination by an overwrought abstraction; the form under which they are presented is but the result of the imperfection of our nature; the spirituality of man is not thereby affected.
The sensible signs which form the exclusive materials for hallucinations, everything that exerts a powerful impression on the mind, can, under certain circumstances, produce an image, a sound, a smell, etc. Thus, when a man has long resigned himself to profound meditation, he frequently finds the idea which has absorbed him clothed in a material form; on the cessation of the mental effort, the vision disappears, and it is explained by natural laws. But, should this man live at a time when apparitions, demons, spirits, phantoms, are a general belief, the vision becomes a reality; with this difference, that if his intellects are healthy, and his mind clear, this apparition has no power over him, and he can fulfil the duties of his social life as well as he who has no hallucinations.
This remark applies forcibly to the hallucinations of eminent men. To have been raised above the belief of their times, they should have inherited another nature, especially where the belief had nothing of a reprehensible character. In adopting it, they partook of a social error; but their enterprises, their actions, their doctrines, were those of philosophers, of moralists, of benefactors of their kind. They fulfilled a needful mission, and their names are justly inscribed among those who glorify humanity.
Who is not struck by the extreme differences which separate these from those who are hallucinated in our day? The former, powerful, logical, full of grandeur in their actions, are the representatives of an epoch, a want, an idea. The latter, feeble, undecided, illusive, are the expression of no desire; their missions are useless, aimless. The hallucinations of the one are consequent on the times; they have no influence on their reason; whilst those of the others prove an unhealthy individual organization, and are always more or less mixed up with madness.
An important point, which must not be lost sight of, is that, in the greater number of these, the hallucination was only an auxiliary to their thought. The illustrious men, so unjustly placed in the catalogue of lunatics, began by conceiving and arranging their plans, stamped with the impress of genius; and it was only when, having profoundly considered them in all their bearings
their minds having attained the highest degree of enthusiasm, that prime mover of great actions—that they saw their thought take a form. The condition designated by the word hallucination, which we use for want of a better, was not in these cases a symptom of madness, but the result of the highest pitch of attention.
In reading the life of an illustrious personage, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is composed of a history and a biography;—history as the spiritual, biography as the mortal part. To judge of one without the other, would be to deceive ourselves and others. The upspringings of genius give rise to phenomena, which are frequently derived from the public voice; they are the rough materials, which disappear beneath the knife of the operator, to leave but the perfect result; they are, so to speak, hallucinations; but they have no effect upon acquired truths; and these exist as well before as after the life of him who has been made their interpreter. Considering its duality, we think that an idea is, like man, composed of two parts—the one spiritual, the other material; and hallucination, considered in its characteristic phenomena, is the material reproduction of an idea. It is the highest degree of tension of which the deep thinker is capable—a real ecstasy. Amongst people of strong conviction, where imagination is not enlightened by science, it is the reflection of general belief; but in neither case does it offer any obstacle to the free exercise of reason. It is an incontrovertible fact that the most celebrated men have been subject to hallucinations, without being in the least degree suspected of mental aberration.
But, however strongly we may protest against accusing these learned men of madness, we nevertheless admit that hallucinations, combined with loss of reason, have existed amongst a certain number of persons renowned in history.
The necessity of belief is a distinctive trait of our nature. If we take both faith and reason for our guides, we are surely led without obstacle to the end we would attain; but if we lean exclusively on one or the other, the result must be sadly erroneous. Faith without reason leads directly to superstition; and reason without faith almost always results in arrogance. The hallucinations which arise from these two sources of error will be as various as the habitual ideas and occupations of the individual. The craving to know, unregulated, will produce monstrosities of every kind. The desire of excitement, indulged in, will drive even the most enlightened nations into absurdities, and give an ephemeral triumph to impostors, until a new excitement arises to replace that which last existed. It would be impossible to give a luminous account of the hallucinations resulting from these two causes; they would be as numerous as the combinations of thought, and as diversified as character.
However much the false direction of the mental powers may be the cause of these hallucinations, they cannot all be so classed. Some are the result of disease, some of certain substances introduced into the system, etc. The primitive phenomenon is always the same; hut the cause differs. We have, therefore, thought it well to separate it into two classes; namely, moral causes and physical causes. In treating of hallucinations and their etiology, considered psychologically, historically, morally, and religiously, we shall enter fully into such a development as the importance of the subject demands.
In a question of this nature, it is natural that our opinion should be required on apparitions mentioned in Holy Writ. It belongs neither to our principles nor to our convictions to evade a reply. We admit the authenticity of the recitals both of the Old and the New Testament; we believe in the intervention of the Divinity to establish a religion, the founder of which proclaimed his mission by the destruction of the worship of false gods, by the abolition of slavery, and the creation of family ties.
But whilst we have established for profane history the fact that there are hallucinations compatible with reason, that there are others aggravated by insanity, resulting from an unhealthy organization, we at the same time believe that many religious persons have had hallucinations connected with the opinions, the errors, and prejudices of the age, without influencing their reason; and that others, on the contrary, have been victims of a delirious imagination. Our general laws are stamped with the seal of our weakness, since their exceptions are incessantly placed side by side with them.
Now, if we consider the chief points of this chapter, we shall observe that a craving for the unknown, to which is related or whence springs the desire to know, the love of the marvellous, the thirst for emotions, proceeds from the violation of the two grand laws which preside over human destiny—the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
Reason, quitting the path of plain doctrine and calm philosophy, becomes uncertain, vacillating, leaves the field free to Imagination, which, delighting in paradoxes, dreams, and chimeras, and reigning supreme, throws ideas into a multitude of false positions, which, becoming afterwards systematized, serve for the development of other species.
But thought—that food of the mind, that mysterious link between the soul and the body—acts in two ways upon man: by its visible and its spiritual sign. If a moral or physical cause acts on the mind with sufficient power to create a visible picture, as in the phenomenon of hallucinations, an image is produced; thus, in derangement, the mind is not the diseased part, it is the organ alone that suffers. The instrument is defective—the mind that directed it is untouched; it rests inactive, but it is never injured; sometimes it even struggles through all obstacles, and proves that all its energy is preserved, notwithstanding its long rest. In its sickness, obliged to act on a chimera, it has continued its functions with perfect regularity.
When neglect of fundamental principles has multiplied false notions, filled the mind with superstitions and errors, which have become general belief, the visible signs by which these notions are impressed on us exhibit themselves in hallucinations; thus, in periods of individuality, they are manifested in forms connected with the habitual preoccupation of whosoever is presented to the eyes of the mind.
The effects of hallucinations are of two kinds: either they have no influence on the mind, or they are accompanied by madness.
But in recognizing the authority of reason, it must not be forgotten that it is under restraint, and that consequently it can be checked and controlled; and, convinced with Bossuet that religion can only come under its influence to a certain point, and under fixed limits, we admit the authenticity of the apparitions of Holy Writ, which we separate entirely from the hallucinations of religious men occasioned by general belief, and compatible with reason.
If hallucination were a simple fact, its classification would not require such enlarged development; but it is far from being so. This particular state of the mind is seen under a multitude of aspects. It exists with reason, it constitutes a variety in madness; frequently, strange metamorphoses of feeling mask it completely. Almost always it accompanies alienation, of which it is then but a symptom. It exists in nightmare, in dreams, in ecstasies; certain nervous diseases, such as epilepsy, hysteria, hypochondria, are also frequently united with it; indeed, it is likewise observed in many inflammatory, chronic, and other affections.
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