by William Lyon Phelps
I look upon horrible dreams as one of the assets of humanity, one of the good things of life; because one feels so elated after waking. I am convinced that most men and women do not sufficiently appreciate the advantages they possess. They either exaggerate their sufferings and drawbacks or, instead of enjoying what they have, they spend their time in longing for what is beyond their reach.
Just as it takes an illness to make one appreciate the satisfactions of health, so one needs a calamity to make one realise how good daily existence really is.It is often said that experience is the best teacher.This is by no means always or even often true. Experience charges too much for her lessons.
There is no good in learning how one might have shown sagacity in business after one is bankrupt; there is no good in discovering how one ought to have avoided a certain article of diet after one is fatally poisoned; there is no good in receiving the proof of the danger in carelessly driving a motor car after one lies dead in the ditch.
Now the best way to discover how cheerful daily life may be is to be visited by a frightful dream. The horrible wild beast has seized us, because when we tried to flee, our legs were lead. Just as it is about to sink its terrible tusks in our shrinking frame, we wake up, and hear the good old trolley car go by. Hurrah! it was only a dream; and we are alive on the blessed earth. And we have learned how sweet plain ordinary life is without the lesson costing us anything but a transitory sweat.
I think, too, that many who either profess to hate life or at all events refuse to admit anything good about it, might appreciate it more if they could be temporarily transferred, not to hell; but to their own imagined heaven. Wagner in the famous music-drama, Tannhauser, has given an admirable illustration. This knight, like all his fellow-creatures, felt the call of the senses; he was transported from this imperfect earth to the pagan Heaven, where he lived in the constant society of Venus. But after a time this palled upon him and eventually became intolerable. He tore himself away, and suddenly found himself back on the earth. He was in a green pasture in the springtime, and a shepherd boy was singing-what happiness! The accomplished German dramatist Ludwig Fulda wrote a play, Schlaraffenland. There was a poor boy, ragged, cold and chronically hungry.He dreamed he was in a magic land.Remarkable birds flew so slowly by him that he found he could reach out his hand and grasp them.He did this, and lo, he had in his hand a broiled chicken! He ate several with avidity. but could not eat forever. Glancing at his ragged garments, a wardrobe door flew wide, and he had his choice among many elegant suits. Thus every desire was instantly and abundantly gratified. After some time, this palled upon him, and then became so unendurable that he gave a yell of horror; he woke up. He was cold, ragged, and hungry; but his heart was singing. He was back on the good old earth.
Thus, whether we dream of hell or of heaven, it is usually with a sigh or even a shout of satisfaction that we find ourselves back on this imperfect globe.
Many persons tell me that they never dream; their sleep is blank. It is with me quite otherwise; I almost always dream; many of my dreams are extraordinarily vivid and some are unforgettable.
When I was a child I dreamed three nights in succession of the Devil. The first night the Devil chased me upstairs. I ran as fast as I could, but sank down when only half way up. Then the Devil took from his pocket a shoemaker's awl and bored it deftly into my right knee. The second night the Devil was in my front yard. Suddenly he changed into the form of a dog; and when another dog rushed barking at him the satanic hound swallowed him as easily as one takes a pill. The third night I also dreamed of the Devil, but I have forgotten the details.
One of the worst dreams I had in childhood was when I was being attacked by wild beasts, and suddenly my mother appeared on the scene. I shrieked to her for help, and she looked at me with calm indifference. That was the worst dream I ever had, and you may be sure it went by contraries.
I suppose the only way we can distinguish dreams from what is called actual life is that in dreams the law of causation is suspended. There is no order in events, and no principle of sufficient reason to account for them. Things change in an impossible manner. Apart from this, dreams are as real as life while they last.
I often have prolonged dreams that are not only fully as real as waking experiences, but are orderly and sensible, and sometimes delightful. Many years ago I dreamed that I was walking the streets of a Russian city with Count Tolstoi. It was one of the most agreeable and most inspiring days of my life, and I have always regretted it never happened. We walked together for hours and discussed modern literature.He said a great many wise and brilliant things, all of which I have, alas, forgotten. The only feature of that dream unlike reality was that Tolstoi had shaved off his beard.
Wilkie Collins, in Armadale, suggested that every dream we have is a repetition of an experience that has actually happened to us during the preceding twenty-four hours. I read that novel in my boyhood and was impressed by that explanation of dreams, and for several months I wrote clown my dreams and found that every one was suggested by something that had happened to me during the preceding day.
The only thing I am certain of in dreams is that they do not in any way forecast the future. When I was a child I dreamed I saw heaven and Jesus sitting on a cloud. He called to me, "Willie Phelps, come here." The next day I told my father and mother about it, and to my surprise they were exceedingly alarmed.