Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Two Moments from the History of Dream Illumination

Perchance to better understand Drinfel'd upper half space

Marina Warner

In Stratford-upon-Avon, there stands a magnificent Gothic church that used to belong to the Guild of the Holy Cross and was once brightly painted with sacred narratives. In the chancel, the story of the Finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena unfolded on the walls; the sequence of dramatic, proto-cinematic scenes was copied from the woodcuts in William Caxton’s edition of The Golden Legend, not long after the book came out in 1480.

These colorful frescoed decorations presented lessons in Christian history in the form of entertaining and fantastic hagiography, and generally served as “sermons in stones.” They did not last long. During the reigns of Henry VIII, his son Edward VI, and his daughter Elizabeth, the English Reformation saw a series of edicts issued condemning superstition and idolatry and ordering the destruction of all instruments used to communicate the old, false worship. The guild was suppressed, and between January 1564 and February 1565, the account books record payments made for whitewashing the walls and selling off the church treasury—its vessels and embroidered vestments. The signature on these accounts is that of John Shakespeare, whose son William was born around this time. John had risen among the good burghers of Stratford to hold various positions in the town, and it was in his capacity as chamberlain of the new Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon that he authorized the payment of two shillings for “defasyng ymages in ye chapell” and a further two shillings for “takynge doune ye rood loft in ye Chapell.”

These were times of violent religious turmoil and they wrought a profound revolution in thought. One of the targets of the Reformers’ hatred was dream knowledge. Lady Macbeth speaks as a modern Protestant when she turns scornfully on her husband, wracked by hallucinations, and says: 

’Tis the eye of childhood,
That fears a painted devil.
(Act II, Scene 2)

At Stratford, the frescoes’ themes were particularly guilty of claiming reliability for dreams: the legend of the True Cross gives pride of place to Constantine’s vision of a blazing cross in the sky, carrying the message “In this sign you shall conquer,” and he did indeed go on to triumph at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and then declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Later in the story, his mother Helena also has a dream, telling her that she should hunt for the relics of the wood on which Christ was crucified; the frescoes represented her carrying out this mission. But the new austere Reformation’s regime opposed visions and portents and the cult of relics; it aimed to stop up all channels of knowledge that were not directly attested by scripture alone. Papist laxity over storytelling and visions carried a great danger: too much personal fantasy in action.

Namagiri is a little-known, local Bodhisattva who is loved and worshipped in southern India, where the mathematical prodigy, number theorist Srinivasa Ramanujan, was born and brought up. He used to say that Namagiri would visit him in dreams and then—in drops of blood, which symbolized her divine husband Vishnu—unfold formulae for him on scrolls. At other times he put it differently, and said that she wrote theorems in golden letters on his tongue. Nobody pressed him to expand on what this might mean, because such a visionary way of thinking about thinking, especially about so fundamental a form of reasoning as mathematics, flies too wide of agreed attitudes toward knowledge and its acquisition for us to look hard at what is happening here. Ramanujan’s claim feels scandalous, even absurd.

Such epiphanies are common, however, in the stories of saints (Ramanujan is a kind of saint) and in fairy tales. A marvelous instance occurs in the Thousand and One Nights, which tells how a man, who has lost his wherewithal, learns that a treasure is buried in his own house in Baghdad; he discovers this not through his own dream, but the dream of a brutal police chief in Cairo who has arrested and tormented him. Here, the concept of dream knowledge is taken further: I can learn from your dreams, not only from my own, even when you cannot see what they are telling you.

Recently, another number theorist, Michael Harris, has written two learned articles about other dream experiences communicating valuable mathematical knowledge: not exactly revelations of something hitherto unknown but stimuli to a different approach, which then spark fresh ideas. In “Do Androids Prove Theorems in Their Sleep?” he discusses a paper written in 1990 in honor of the legendary algebraic geometer Alexander Grothendieck by a distinguished colleague, Robert Thomason. Thomason co-authored it with a friend, Tom Trobaugh, although Trobaugh had died—he had killed himself—before the paper was begun. In a foreword, Thomason explained that “ninety-four days [after his death], in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, ‘The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.’ Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong. ... But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument. ... The work quickly led to the key results of this paper.”

The act of acknowledging his friend’s contribution is in one sense simply a generous, loving act of mourning. But placed in the introduction to a mathematical paper, and allowed to remain there by the editors of the Festschrift where it appeared, this story of a profound emotional experience offers rare recognition of ways of thinking that are commonly discounted. It gives serious, and poignant, value to mental faculties on the other side of consciousness; call them fantasia, imagination, irrationality, hypnagogic vision, the unconscious, or what you will—a term has not been yet developed that captures their workings.

Michael Harris goes on, in another paper, to describe another powerful experience of dream illumination, when one morning he was awoken by the alarm clock: “I drifted into consciousness with the certainty that I had just dreamt about the cohomology of unramified coverings of Drinfel’d upper half space, and that the dream had brought me an insight I could not quite recover but that I was certain I should not let slip away.” Harris had never consciously struggled with this problem before his dream, and its productive aftermath is too long and tangled to repeat here, except to say that Harris concludes by introducing a new twist to the Eureka! model. He does not claim to have discovered a solution but, more crucially, to have found a different way of tackling the question: “And though I was unable to bring the dream argument to a successful conclusion, the dream and the interest it inspired in this question did bring about a radical change in my mathematical priorities.” Harris then offers a rational self-analysis of the emotional dynamics that shaped his dream question, but his approach grants such uncanny experience an unusual potential, extending beyond the subjective psychoanalytical model and throwing a delicate rope bridge across the chasm between empirical process and the mysterious epiphanies so frequent in the storytelling of the past. 

Marina Warner is a London-based writer of fiction, cultural history, and criticism, including a prize-winning study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus, 2011). Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists will be published by Thames & Hudson in the fall of 2018.

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