Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dream, Prophecy and Revelation in Lovecraft

People these days are likely to see dreams as material for psychotherapy, as an adjunct to self awareness and self improvement.  Certainly this has been the case since the advent of psychoanalysis, and was developed further by various traditions—really, denominations—in the field of psychology, especially in the groovy 1960s and 1970s.  The more creative among us may use remembered dreams as source material for creative writing or visual arts.  But this was not always so. 

In the distant past, the mysterious experience of dreaming was important in prophecy and communion with the gods.  That dreams are integral to prophecy was seen in various cultures for thousands of years.  In Judeo-Christian writings dreams are very prevalent.  Recordings of dreams are common in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, to name just one source of ancient spiritual writings.  Tertullian, an early Christian writer who was active in the second century A.D., once wrote that “almost the greater part of mankind derive their knowledge of God from dreams.”  Early Church Fathers such as St. Augustine, Origen, Cyprian, and Athanasius all recorded their own dreams or commented on the spiritual significance of dreams. 

Often described as visions or revelations, dreams in scripture typically contain warnings or prophecies or both.  Sometimes they can be very specific and personal, as when Joseph interprets the dreams of his fellow prisoners and determines their fate, (Genesis 40: 9-18). Or they can be more general, as in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, who warn of Jerusalem’s eventual destruction because of injustice and idolatry.  Occasionally, a dream may yield information about the dreamer’s psychological state, as when Daniel interprets a dream of Nebuchadnezzar that foretells the monarch losing his mind, (Daniel 4: 24-26).  (Something similar to the king's fate occurs in Lovecraft’s short story, Celephaïs.)

In earlier posts there was discussion of the importance of dreams and dream imagery in Lovecraft’s work.  Several of his stories appear to be elaborations, or contain elaborations, of dreams he may have had himself. Lovecraft does not appear to ascribe to any particular theory of dream psychology.  He dismisses the Freudian analysis that was popular in his time as simplistic and vulgar.  He seems to acknowledge that dreams are experiences in and of themselves and comprise an alternate and valid reality.  He says as much in the opening of Beyond the Wall of Sleep, where he describes dream consciousness, “whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggest possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life…”

Remarkably, dreams often serve the same purpose in Lovecraft’s writing as they do in scripture.  In some of his stories they have a prophetic role.   For example, in The Call of Cthulhu, an artist named Wilcox has horrific visions of “great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths” that drive him to fashion the facsimile of a small stone idol.  In Beyond the Wall of Sleep, an ignorant mountain man and the medical intern who befriends him experience a shared revelation of a world where their dream souls are freed of their earthly, mortal fetters.  In The Shadow Out of Time, strange nightmares and archaeological evidence force the narrator to confront unconscious repressed memories of a terrifying encounter with the Great Race.

In some of Lovecraft’s stories, dreams create a psychic link with some powerful, malevolent entity that gradually gains control over the character’s will and drives him toward some terrible purpose.  This theme is found in The Dreams in the Witch-House, and The Haunter of the Dark.  Somnambulism and obsessive behaviors increase in the hapless characters, and suggest a form of demonic possession.

But dreams can serve a positive and instrumental function as well in some of Lovecraft’s work.  In particular, they provide access to an alternate reality, a doorway.  The most obvious example of this is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, in which this approach to the dreaming consciousness is highly developed.  Finding his goal of beginning a journey through his dreamland initially thwarted, Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter ego, “prayed long and earnestly to the hidden gods of dream that brood capricious above the clouds on unknown Kadath, in the cold waste where no man treads.”

In Celephaïs, the dream personality of Kuranes is shielded from the harsh reality of his adult existence by a vision fashioned out of tales and dreams from his childhood.  Of his character’s perspective, Lovecraft writes: “Whilst they strove to strip from life its embroidered robes of myth, and to shew in naked ugliness the foul thing that is reality, Kuranes sought for beauty alone.”  This sounds like autobiographical self-disclosure on the part of the author.

In many places throughout Lovecraft’s works, dreams serve as sources of prophecy, revelation, and psychological wholeness.  They also can serve as a plot device—either a psychic link with evil that drives the character to destruction, or a useful, if challenging portal to another world.  Is it possible that references to dreams in the Old and New Testament were at least partly the inspiration for those that occur in Lovecraft’s stories?  It is interesting that he eschews the tepid self-help dream psychology so prevalent today for the more terrifying yet essentially religious approach of prophecy and revelation.

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