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Reviews

Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams and the Medical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-521-58316-0. £37.50 (US$64.95).

  • Nicholas Halmi

…plus d’informations

  • Nicholas Halmi
    McMaster University

Corps de l’article

A full-length study of Coleridge's concern with dreams has long been a desideratum. Select writings, especially the notebook entries recording dreams and commenting on them, have been studied for such varied purposes as elucidating Coleridge's poems, assessing the effects of his opium use, revealing his ambivalence about women, evaluating his psychological insight, and determining his place in the history of oneirology. But before the appearance of Coleridge on Dreaming, no book was wholly occupied with surveying and interpreting Coleridge's oneirological writings, and it looked as if Coleridge's inability to 'devote an entire work to the subject of Dreams' (a hope he expressed in The Friend) had extended to his critics. Hitherto the most comprehensive examination of Coleridge and dreams took the form of a special double-issue of the psychological journal Dreaming, edited by David Miall and Don Kuiken. But precisely because this was a collection of essays by divers hands, it was not expected to demonstrate a uniformity of approach or even of subject. A book by a single author, in contrast, may reasonably be expected to demonstrate one kind of uniformity or the other.

Let me define these terms for the present context. Uniformity of approach would consist either in interpreting Coleridge's recorded dreams themselves (whatever one conceives dreams to be) or in interpreting his comments about his dreams, but not in doing both. Uniformity of subject would consist in confining one's attention either to dreams, as products of the nocturnal mind, or to 'dreams', as products of the waking mind (i.e. poetic constructs), but not in treating both as if they were the same. A psychoanalytic study, because it is uniform in approach and assumes that both dreams and poem can reveal the contents of the unconscious, may neglect the formal differences between the texts it studies. But an 'historical exploration', which seeks to investigate 'Coleridge's responses to his dreams and to contemporary debates on the nature of dreaming' (I quote from the dust-jacket blurb of Coleridge on Dreaming), needs to adhere to both uniformities, so to speak. It has no business interpreting Coleridge's dreams for him or interpreting his poems as if they were dreams, for neither kind of interpretation contributes to an understanding of his relation to contemporary oneirology.

By these criteria of assessment, Coleridge on Dreaming is a disappointment. The problems begin on the title page with the concepts of dreams and medical imagination, neither of which is sufficiently defined in the book. The failure to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical use of the word dream, for example in the discussions of drama (pp. 33-7) and Christabel (pp. 46-7), permits in turn a more serious confusion between different senses of the word imagination. Thus on the one hand imagination is identified with association, as when we are informed that in 'Dugald Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Soul (1791), dreams are seen as the product of the imagination, which is the tendency in the 'human mind to associate or connect its thoughts together'' (p. 17), while on the other it is identified with the formative power that Coleridge theorized in explicit rejection of associationism (pp. 183-202). Admittedly, Coleridge himself confused the issue by occasionally using the word imagination indiscriminately, and by falsely opposing imagination (conceived in German idealist terms) to fancy (conceived in British empiricist terms). But these facts make it especially imperative for the critic to sort out, rather than to reproduce, the confusion.

If there is one respect which Coleridge is perfectly consistent, it is in his insistence on the suspension of volition, or will, in sleep and nocturnal dreaming. Ford acknowledges this and correctly notes Coleridge's agreement on the matter with earlier oneirological writers, including Andrew Baxter and Erasmus Darwin (pp. 33-4), but she underestimates the importance of the fact, which is the key to understanding Coleridge's fundamental differentiation of poetic creations from oneiric aggregations. His definition of poetry as a 'rationalized dream' is quoted several times (pp. 35, 183), but without due consideration of the adjective: because reason, for Coleridge, presupposes the presence of will, a rationalized dream is no dream at all, at least according to his usual description of dreams as phenomena produced during sleep by an unrestrained process of association. And just as the presence of will distinguishes poetry from dreams, so the absence of it prevents dreams from containing symbolic meaning. It is one thing to assert that Coleridge's recorded dreams are symbolic, as Ford does (pp. 57, 60-1), but quite another to assert that he considered them to be so. (To make both assertions, and to interpret the dream-texts accordingly, is to violate the principle of uniformity of approach.) Coleridge was certainly capable of entertaining the possibility that dreams have a language distinct from but analogous to spoken languages, but it is an exaggeration to say that he was 'firmly convinced' of it (p. 56). In fact the notebook entries in which he recorded his dreams are remarkable not only for their detailed accounts of the content of the dreams, but also for their refusal to interpret those contents. The extent to which Coleridge was unable or unwilling to relinquish the associationist view of dreams as meaningless is revealed in his dismissive comments on precisely that book which, if he had attributed symbolic significance to dreams, he should have embraced: G. H. Schubert's Symbolik des Traumes, which he read in the second edition of 1821. Coleridge could hardly have failed to notice the similarity between Schubert's concept of the symbol and his own (as formulated in The Statesman's Manual), so why did he reject Schubert's argument that dreams can reveal to modern man the cosmic harmony which nature had revealed to ancient man—and on the grounds that Schubert's symbolic dreams 'ought not to have been confounded with those of proper sleep' (qtd. on p. 62)? The answer is not, as Ford argues, that Coleridge believed there were 'many different dream languages' (p. 63), but rather that he was unwilling to attribute symbolic significance—which would imply the operation of the rational mind—to phenomena whose rationality he steadfastly denied. The thought that dreams might be meaningful could only increase their terror to someone who, even while explaining them in mechanist and associationist terms, often kept himself awake at night to avoid them.

There is much of value in Coleridge and Dreaming, not least in its diligent assembly of Coleridge's scattered writings on dreams and its extensive attention to the Enlightenment contexts of those writings, particularly associationist psychology; but the book's methodological faults militate against its conclusions and prevent it from being considered a 'definitive' treatment of its various subjects.