The 19th century was not just an era of industrial revolution, thrilling inventions, warfare on an unprecedented scale, and relentless empire building. It was also a bully time for dreaming. To put it another way, 19th-century humans were so productive that even their dreams bore fruit. The Scottish-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt of a fugitive who quaffed a potion and morphed into a bestial version of himself; this glimpse provided the basis for an unforgettable novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The German chemist August Kekule dreamt of a snake that seized its tail in its mouth; on awakening, Kekule interpreted this striking image as a sign that benzene had a ring-like molecular structure—an insight that transformed organic chemistry. And at Penn, a young Latin and philosophy teacher named William Romaine Newbold C1887 gathered and examined his colleagues’ problem-solving dreams in an article that is still regularly cited.
Penn’s contribution to the topic of fecund dreams can be traced to a widespread crisis of faith. As the geology of Charles Lyell and the biology of Charles Darwin sank in, casting grave doubt on the Bible’s literal truth, intelligent men and women had to reassess their beliefs. The Victorian desperation to cling to old-time religion found its ultimate expression in the defense mounted by English naturalist Philip Gosse; he met the new geological findings head-on, arguing that God had strewn fossils far and wide precisely as a test of faith. All those bones and impressions in stone made the Earth look far older than the Biblical 6,000 years, Gosse said, but in fact it was not.
Less ingenious thinkers sought refuge in the occult, a booming realm patrolled by mesmerists, spiritualist mediums, mind-readers, clairvoyants, and the like. But when skeptical critics, Penn faculty members among them, began exposing occult practitioners as charlatans [“Feet and Faith,” Mar|Apr 2006], the public wondered if there was any way to distinguish between the genuine and the fake. Along came a group of British scholars, who in 1882 founded the Society for Psychical Research with a mission of subjecting paranormal claims to the same evidentiary rigor that governed chemistry, geology, and the other sciences. It was in the Society’s organ, The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, that Newbold’s essay appeared.
There’s not much doubt as to where the Society’s sympathies lay. In 1896, the illustrious American psychologist William James pointed the way in an article published just ahead of Newbold’s in the Proceedings. James’s piece, in fact, was his farewell address as president of the Society, which by then had become Anglo-American. In his talk, he applauded the group not just for adhering to the scientific method but also for bridging the gulf between science and folk wisdom:
It is the intolerance of Science for such phenomena as we are studying, her peremptory denial either of their existence, or of their significance except as proofs of man’s absolute innate folly, that has set Science so apart from the common sympathies of the race. I confess that it is on this, its humanizing mission, that our Society’s best claim to the gratitude of our generation seems to me to depend. We have restored continuity to history. We have shown some reasonable basis for the most superstitious aberrations of the foretime.
James, however, was perhaps being disingenuous. Although he might pretend that the Society was in business largely to validate concerns dear to the mass heart, elsewhere in the same address he showed his true colors. Although the Society has generated some promising results, he noted, “we must all share in a regret that the evidence … should not grow more voluminous still. For whilst it cannot be ignored by the candid mind, it yet, as it now stands, may fail to convince coercively the sceptic.” The idea, then, was to keep up one’s hopes for a breakthrough into the other side while continuing to insist that paranormal claims pass the kinds of tests applied to hypotheses in the other sciences.
In Dreams Begin Discoveries By Dennis Drabelle
Illustration by Lou Beach
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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette