Stream of Consciousness Novel -or- The Dreams of William James

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." James Joyce

Me, Myself and I -or- The Created Symbolic Self of William James

Robert J. Weber "the created self: Reinventing Body, Persona and Spirit", reports the dreams of the American psychological pioneer William James had in February 1906. Pay close attention, to William James's language, as it relates to his use of the pronouns, "me"," myself" and "I". These are William James dreams and waking reports;

"The night before last, in my bed at Stanford University, I woke at 7:30 A.M., from a quiet dream of some sort, which seemed to telescope, as it were, into the first one, a dream very elaborate, of lions, and tragic. I concluded this to have been a previous dream of the same sleep; but the apparent mingling of the two dreams was something very queer, which I had never experienced.

    On the following night (Feb.12-13) I awoke suddenly from my sleep, which appeared to very heavy, in the middle of a dream, in thinking of which became suddenly confused by the contents of two other dreams that shuffled themselves abruptly in between the parts of the first dream, and which I couldn't grasp the origin. Whence come these dreams? I asked. They were close to me, and fresh, as if I had just dreamed the: and yet they were far away from the first dream. The contents of the three dreams had absolutely no connection. One had a cockney atmosphere, it happened to someone in London. The other two were American. One involved the trying on of a coat (was this the dream I seemed to wake from), the other was a sort of nightmare and had to do with soldiers. Each had a wholly distinct emotional atmosphere that made its individuality discontinuous with that of the others.

    And yet, in a moment, as three dreams alternately telescoped into and out of each other, and I seemed to myself to have been the common dreamer, they seemed quite as distinctly not to have been dreamed in succession, in that one sleep. When, then, and which was the one out of which I had just awakened? I could no longer tell: one was as close to me as the others, and yet they entirely repelled each other, and I seemed thus to belong three different dream-systems at once, no one of which would connect itself either with the others or with my waking life. I began to feel curiously confused and scared, and tried to wake myself up wider, but I seemed already wide-awake. Presently cold shivers of dread ran over me: am I getting into other people's dreams? Is this a "telepathic" experience? Or an invasion of double (or treble) personality? Or is it a thrombus in a cortical artery? And the beginning of a general mental "confusion" and disorientation which is going to develop who knows how far?

    Decidedly I was losing hold of my "self," and making acquaintance with a quality of mental distress that I had never known before, its nearest analogue being the sinking, giddying anxiety that one may have when, in the woods, one discovers that one is really "lost." Most human troubles look towards terminus. Most fears point in a direction and concentrate towards a climax. Most assaults of the evil one may be met by bracing oneself against something, one's principles, one's courage, one's wit, one's pride. But in this experience was diffusion from a centre, and a foothold swept away, the brace itself disintegrating all the faster as one needed its support more direly. Meanwhile vivid perception (or remembrance) of the various dreams kept coming over me in alteration. Whose? whose? WHOSE? Unless I can attach them, I am swept out to sea with no horizon and no bond, getting lost. The idea aroused the "creeps" again, the fear of again falling asleep and renewing the process. It had begun the previous night, but then the confusion had gone only one step, and seemed simply curious. This was the second step-where might I be after a third step had been taken?...

    At the same time I found myself with a new pity toward persons passing into dementia...or into invasions of secondary personality. We regard them as simply curious: but what they want in the awful drift of their being out of its' customary self, is any principle of steadiness to hold on to. We ought to assure them and reassure then that we will stand by them, and recognize the true self in them, to the end. We ought to let them know that we are with them and not (as too often we must seem to them) a part of the world that but confirms and publishes their deliquescence."

   Evidently I was in full possession of my reflective wits; and whenever I thus objectively thought of the situation in which I was, my anxieties ceased. But there was a tendency to relapse vividly; and then the confusion recommenced, along with the emotion of dread lest it should develop further [sic].

   Then I looked at my watch. Half-past twelve! Midnight, therefore. And this gave me another reflective idea. Habitually, on going to be, I fall into a very deep slumber from which I never naturally awaken until after two. I never awaken, therefore, from a midnight dream, as I did tonight. Dream states carry dream memories-why may not two succedaneous dreams (whichever two of the three were succedaneous) be memories of the twelve o'clock dreams of previous nights, swept in, along the just fading dream, into the just waking system of memory? Why, in short, may I not be tapping in a way precluded by my ordinary habit of life, the midnight stratum of my past?

   This idea gave great relief-I felt now as if I were in full possession of my anima rationalis....[I]t seems, therefore, merely as if the threshold between the rational and morbid state had, in my case, been temporarily lowered, and as if similar confusions might be very near the line of possibility in all of us."

Here then is the interpretation William James dreams and report.

The Stream of Consciousness -or- The Principles of Dream Psychology

We are permitted to witness, observe and see first hand, the concept coined by James in "Principles of Psychology", of the stream of consciousness in full operation. Upon awakening from the middle of a dream, he has difficulty with instituting conscious reality testing. James attempts to bring conscious and rational order ("anima rationalis") to the "discontinous" chaotic unconscious material, which causes instability to the brace of his stream of consciousness. Successive attempts to brace and support his conscious mind fail, and he cannot withstand the assaults of the unconscious material on his conscious mind.

As a consequence James describes his thoughts, feelings and sensations as; "Decidedly I was losing hold of my self", "confused", "lost", "scared, "cold shivers of dread", "creeps", "mental distress", and his conscious "brace itself disintegrating". James reports these rational braces include; principles, courage, wit, and pride, which are no match or defense against the onslaught of the perceived threat of "morbid" states of consciousness. He speculates, fears and anticipates a third step, being possibly a full blown break with reality, should the dreadful "process" continue its course. James uses all the conscious psychological and conceptual tools he has to restore order.

The linguistic centre of the psychological problem of his consciousness seems to surround the idea that James himself identifies, namely that the confusion originated from "three different dream-systems". This was not his habitual way of thinking about dreams. Using all the three pronouns of "me", "myself" and I, James finally turns to the reflective pronoun, to help solve the problem of cognitive dissonance (confusion) he was experiencing. In the second last paragraph of James report, he says; "And this gave me another reflective idea." In effect, James dreams and report shows us a variety of states of consciousness, thought processes, identifications, interpretations, ways to introspect, ideas about dreams, dream states and dream memory, personality dynamics, religious ideas (the evil one), attention, perception, waking memory, habits, emotions and dissonance. His psychological efforts to find a reflective interpretation that fits the bill meets with eventual success, finally an "idea gave great relief", restoring control over his stream of self-consciousness and his inner well being. From an emotional perspective the experience has awakened a "new pity" and caring (empathy) feelings for those with dementia.

Freud's Navel and Trains of Thought -or- William, Alice and Henry James

In Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams", we find the comment that the navel of the dream is "the spot where it reaches down into the unknown." A point we will return to in a few moments. William James found relief when he realized that "dream states carry dream memories", that he had never tapped into before, and therefore these were unknown to him. In contrast, Freud saw the "dream work" not poetically configured by the stream of consciousness metaphor, instead by the associative idea of a person's "trains of thought", both the conscious and unconscious mentations. For Freud, dreams provided access into hearing, seeing and sensing the psychodynamics of a person's network of mentations of life, relationships, thought, feeling, memory and inner being. William James does not seem to see any train of thought personal connections of the one dream which is situated in London and the other two in America. I believe that James gave up these ternary lines of thought and inquiry found throughout the narrative report, prematurely.

James had woken up "in the middle of the dream" and his thoughts became confused, signaling for James the alarming onset of a dreaded morbid derailment or thought disorder. For James, each of the "three dream-systems", have their own emotional atmosphere which give the feel of discontinuous individuality. James labels one dream as having a "cockney" atmosphere.

William James brother was Henry James and his sister was Alice James. It is very possible that the "three different dream-systems" represent William, Henry and Alice. In his own words, the three dreams "telescoped into and out of each other." Henry James lived much of his adult life in England becoming a British subject shortly before his death. Henry wrote a series a novels that portrayed aspects of both American and European life in such novels as "The American" and "The Ambassadors". Henry James stream of consciousness novels have been compared to impressionistic painting. Alice James was a female "hysteric" suffering to keep her sanity, never finding relief. In her diaries she reportedly voiced patricidal feelings, William evidently was very close to his sister, who past on from breast cancer in 1892. Is the "pity" in the dream, also a recollection of his sister and her distress?

Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and the Garden of Eden

William James awoke in the middle of a dream, a twilight zone between dreams and consciousness. His ideas about the stream of consciousness, opened the literary door for the use of this concept as a literary device to show and tell a person's story from an inner point of view. Waking up from a dream, is a literary device that was used by a number of 20th century novelists such as, Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" whose opening line reads "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". Franz Kafka's novella "Metamorphosis", begins with "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

Film makers early on learned to use dreams to influence and shape the telling of the conscious story. The stream of consciousness novel, popularized at the beginning of the 20th century by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Marcel Proust shaped this narrative mode to provide an introspective entrance into the thought processes, "emotional atmosphere" and inner life of a person. Harold Bloom in "The Western Canon", would include the works of Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf and Kafka as essential literary parts of the Canon. From my own perspective, the canon, humanity and the human condition has always been driven by "dream vision", just look at Dante's "Divine Comedy".

Proust's masterpiece, "Remembrance of Things Past" stands for some, as the defining modern novel. However in this "Field Note", it is James Joyce who receives the final word about William James influence, dreams and ideas. Joyce's "Ulysses" provides us with the poetic "navel" of the stream of consciousness novel. In Joyce's novel, Mrs MacCabe somewhat "morbidly" is carrying around a miscarried, dead foetus in her bag. This triggers off Stephen Dedalus navel gazing imagination, who then sees this archetypal navel cord, as one that links all human beings like telephone cables to the archetypal mother, Eve. Much like in an omphalic dream, this poetic conceit, allows Stephen's imagination to take flight, in as much, that he can think of dialing and calling the Garden of Eden. As Stephen instructs; "Put me on to Edenville."


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.