Nietzsche’s Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death

In Ronald Hayman’s 1980 biography Nietzsche: A Critical Life, he mentions two dreams that came to Friedrich Nietzsche early in his life.

1. “I heard the church organ playing as at a funeral. When I looked to see what was going on, a grave opened suddenly, and my father arose out of it in a shroud. He hurries into the church and soon comes back with a small child in his arms. The mound on the grave reopens, he climbs back in, and the gravestone sinks back over the opening. The swelling noise of the organ stops at once, and I wake up.”

Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, 1980), p. 18.  Nietzsche had the dream at the age of 5, at the end of January in 1850, six months after his father, a Lutheran pastor, died from a long and painful “softening of the brain.”  Nietzsche’s description continues: “In the morning I tell the dream to my dear mother.  Soon after that little Joseph [Nietzsche’s infant brother] is suddenly taken ill.  He goes into convulsions and dies within a few hours.”

2. “He saw the parsonage lying in ruins and his grandmother sitting alone among the debris. Waking up in tears, he was unable to sleep any more.”

From Hayman, p. 32.  Nietzsche had this dream the night of August 2, 1859, when he was 14 years old, after a big family party celebrating the 70th birthday of his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor like his father.  Hayman’s account continues: “In the morning he told Elisabeth [his sister] and his mother, who said neither of them must talk about the dream.  Always robust, their grandfather was still in good health.  But before the summer was over he caught a bad chill, which developed into influenza.  By the end of the year he was dead.”

These two dreams prefigure Nietzsche’s later philosophy in several ways.  They express a profound appreciation for the terrifying power of the unconscious, a tragic sense of fate and mortality, an openness to insights from “irrational” sources of knowledge, and a spiritual struggle with the death of God, the church, and His representatives on earth.

Hayman’s biography helps us see how Nietzsche’s early dream experiences gave fuel to the coming explosion of philosophical creativity.  In 1870, as a 25-year old professor at Basel University, he wrote in his notebook, “In one half of existence we are artists—as dreamers.  This entirely active world is necessary to us.” (p. 135)

These notes served as the basis for The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche’s first published book.  The opening section of this work lays out an understanding of art, philosophy, and history that centers on the creative power of dreams.

“The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also.  In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.  But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance; at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets….And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have likewise heard of people who were able to continue one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights—facts which indicate clearly how our innermost being, our common ground, experiences dreams with profound delight and a joyful necessity.” (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, 1967, pp. 34-35)

This is not the place to explore the influence of dreams on The Birth of Tragedy or other writings in Nietzsche’s later career.  But it’s worth pointing out that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew of Nietzsche’s philosophy and wove his ideas directly into their new psychological theories.  If you want to understand Freud and Jung better, go back to Nietzsche and his childhood dreams.

(Note: the picture shows Nietzsche in 1861, at the age of 16 or 17.)

Dream Interpretation in Christianity: A Brief History

Dreams and dream interpretation play a variety of roles in the Bible.  They reveal God’s presence and plan for the future (e.g., Jacob’s dream at Bethel, Gen 28:10-22), warn of impending dangers (e.g., Pharaoh’s nightmares in Gen 41), guide and reassure the faithful (e.g., Paul’s visions of the night in Acts 16:9 and 18:9), and bestow blessings (e.g., Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matt 1:20).  In some passages dreaming is presented as a form of divine inspiration, for example Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

However, some Biblical texts question the meaningfulness of dreams and the veracity of those that seem to reveal messages from God.  In Zech10:2 it says, “the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation,” while Jer 29:8 warns, “do not listen to the dreams which they dream.”  The skeptical attitude expressed in these passages does not contradict the more favorable treatment of dreams found in the other texts, but rather provides a balancing perspective that heightens awareness of the challenges of discerning God’s truth.

The imperative question then becomes, how does one distinguish a true from a false dream?  If God does indeed speak in dreams, then a faithful person should be attentive to that possibility in his or her own dreaming experience.  But if dreams can also be false or misleading, what guidance does a person have in distinguishing the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff?

The Bible itself suggests at least three possible answers.  1) Direct messages. Sometimes a dream’s meaning is so clear and distinct that no interpretation is necessary, as in Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matthew 1 and Paul’s night visions, both of which involve direct, unambiguous auditory communications.  2) Metaphorical analysis. In some cases a method of metaphoric/symbolic translation is required to understand a dream’s meaning and import, most famously with Joseph and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s two disturbing dreams of self-devouring cows and ears of grain.  Joseph emphasizes the significance of the two dreams together: “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dreams means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Gen 41:32).  Unfortunately the text does not say how exactly Joseph knew, for example, that the number of cows and ears of grain would equal the number of years of coming plenty and famine.  3) Faith and mystical intuition. Both Joseph and Daniel say that their ability to interpret dreams ultimately rests on their faith in God’s guidance.  This faith enables Joseph to accurately identify the symbolic meaning of Pharaoh’s nightmares, succeeding where all the royal diviners and wise men had failed.  Daniel’s faith-fueled interpretive ability is so great that he can tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream means without even hearing the dream in the first place (Dan 2).

All Biblical references to dreams and dream interpretation are intertwined in complex ways with other cultural traditions and dream teachings, making it difficult to speak of a uniquely Christian method of interpreting dreams.  It is better instead to consider some of the ways Christians have practiced, or argued against, the interpretation of dreams.

Several early Christian theologians (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, Synesius) spoke highly of dreams as an authentic source of divine inspiration.   These church fathers saw dreams, properly interpreted, as a powerful means of strengthening people’s faith and converting new people to the Christian community. Augustine, following his own conversion and vow of chastity, treated dreams skeptically as a source of sexual temptation, but he acknowledged that his deeply faithful mother Monica had an innate ability to distinguish personal dreams from truly divine dreams.  Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, evaluates divination by dreams in terms of its theological legitimacy and concludes that it may, in the right circumstances, be practiced by good Christians: “There is no unlawful divination in making use of dreams for the foreknowledge of the future, so long as those dreams are due to divine revelation, or to some natural cause inward or outward, and so far as the efficacy of that cause extends.”  A strong statement against dreams comes from Protestant reformer Martin Luther, in his commentary on the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 40: “I care nothing about visions and dreams.  Although they seem to have a meaning, yet I despise them and am content with the sure meaning and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture.”  Luther does not deny that some dreams may have divine messages, but he insists that any dream must be tested for its fidelity to scripture.  This reduces dream interpretation to a process of confirming what is already known in scripture, effectively rendering dreams spiritually superfluous.

Since the Enlightenment, dream interpretation has generally been relegated to the realm of superstition and fortune-telling (or used by inquisitors to ferret out heretics).  Modern Christian theologians have for the most part conceded to the rationalist viewpoint and ignored dreams as a topic of serious, sustained reflection.  In the twentieth century the twin forces of Freudian psychoanalysis and sleep laboratory research, though disagreeing on many points, combined to dismiss religious ideas about dreams in favor of reductive psychological explanations.  Present-day Christians are thus left with an ambiguous heritage.  A phenomenon with an honored place in scripture and early history has fallen into disrepute, despite the experiential fact that people today continue to have dreams with religious significance and spiritually meaningful content.

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References:

Bulkeley, K., K. Adams, and P.M. Davis, eds. 2009. Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Covitz, Joel. 1990. Visions of the Night: A Study of Jewish Dream Interpretation. Boston: Shambhala.

Freud, S. 1965. The interpretation of dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1992. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by J. Tedeschi and A. Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harris, M. 1994. Studies in Jewish dream interpretation. Northvale: Jason Aronson.

Kagan, Richard L. 1990. Lucrecia’s Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kelsey, M. 1991. God, dreams, and revelation: A Christian interpretation of dreams. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.

Miller, P.C. 1994. Dreams in late antiquity: Studies in the imagination of a culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Osborne, Roger. 2001. The Dreamer of the Calle de San Salvador. London: Pimlico.

Strickling, B.L. 2007. Dreaming about the divine. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stroumsa, D. 1999. Dreams and visions in early Christian discourse. In Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, edited by D. Shulman and D. Stroumsa. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Religious and Non-Religious People: A Survey of their Dreams

People who are not Christian and not religiously observant report higher dream recall and a higher frequency of most typical dreams. That’s one of the initial findings from a study I’m doing on the demographics of dreaming, based on survey results from 2992 American adults.  Most religious traditions regard dreams as spiritually significant.  But the people who are most engaged with their dreams in present-day America tend to be those who are not affiliated with mainstream Christianity and who rarely or never attend worship services.

Compared to Protestant and Catholic Christians, people who answered “Other/None” to the question of their religious affiliation reported the highest frequency of dreams of chasing, sexuality, falling, flying, and being able to control their dreams.  Similarly, people who never attend religious worship services have higher dream recall and higher frequencies of many types of dreams as compared to people who attend worship services once a week or more.  These findings are consistent with the results presented in chapter 3 of my 2008 book American Dreamers:

“Non-religious people report more of every type of dream, especially sexual dreams.” (91)

That finding came from a survey in 2007 of 705 American adults.  The appearance of the same pattern in the 2010 survey suggests the correlation may be worth pursuing for the new light it can shed on the psychology of religion.

The new survey has the advantage of including narrative dream reports from many of the participants.  I’m just beginning to sift through this data using word searches and other methods of analysis.

Here are a couple of short nightmares from the “Other/None” people who never attend worship services:

“I often have nightmares about spaceships, or unknown forces coming across a horizon, often with a sense of impending doom. The anticipation of death lasts and lasts and lasts…eventually i wake up.”

“I was being chased by a huge blob monster that looked like purple jello. I shot it with a rifle, but it broke up into several monsters. I ran into a house that looked like a Disney castle, and it swallowed the house.”

Here are two from Born-again Christians:

“I was falling in a fast freefall with no end in sight and as I went further I know I was trying to scream but only a low gutteral sound was coming out. I heard myself make that noise and sat up sweating and scared.”

“I was chased and attacked by demons. I tried to “rebuke” them in the name of Christ, as I’ve heard you should do in real life if ever confronted by demons, but they just kept coming toward me. They were hitting me, throwing me around and otherwise tormenting me. I woke up in a cold sweat; only time I can remember that happening. I was a teenager at the time, but I was so freaked out, I woke up my mother. She came and slept in my bed the rest of the night.”

A Dream Before Dying

Life’s profound problems often get resolved in the sleep  that comes before the final rest, these authors say

By Anne Underwood
Newsweek Magazine
July 25, 2005 issue

As a hospice chaplain for 10 years, the Rev. Patricia Bulkley confronted the raw emotions of the dying-their terror at the approaching end, their unresolved family problems, their crises of faith. They were people like Charles Rasmussen, a retired merchant-marine captain in his mid-80s who was dying of cancer. He was consumed by fear until, in a dream one night, he saw himself sailing in uncharted waters. Once again, he felt the thrill of adventure as he pushed through a vast, dark, empty sea, knowing he was on course. “Strangely enough, I’m not afraid to die anymore,” he told Bulkley after that dream. Death was no longer an end, but a journey.

As Bulkley reveals in a slender but powerful new book, “Dreaming Beyond Death,” many people have extraordinary dreams in their final days and weeks. These dreams can help the dying grapple with their fears, find the larger meaning in their lives, even mend fences with relatives. Yet all too often, caregivers dismiss them as delusional or unworthy of attention. Not Bulkley, who often discussed dreams with patients at the Hospice of Marin in California. Her experiences were the inspiration for the book, which she coauthored with her son Kelly Bulkeley, a past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. It is the first volume devoted to the (paradoxically) life-affirming power of pre-death dreams. And though the research is still preliminary, the authors inject level-headed analysis into an arena often dominated by seekers of the paranormal.

Accounts of prescient or meaningful pre-death dreams span religions and cultures, from China and India to ancient Greece. The last dream that psychologist Carl Jung was able to communicate to his followers, a few days before his death, was of a great round stone engraved with the words “And this shall be a sign unto you of Wholeness and Oneness.” To Jung, it showed that his work in this life was complete. Socrates and Confucius also spoke of significant dreams they had shortly before their deaths.

Yet there has been little systematic study of such dreams in modern times. The inherent difficulties are obvious. You can’t enroll people with a week or two to live in formal studies-and they’re hardly going to walk into a sleep clinic and volunteer. By default, hospice workers and family members have collected more of these stories than dream researchers. No one even knows what percentage of people ultimately experience such dreams. Still, scientists recognize that they can be deeply meaningful.

There are certain overarching themes that emerge-going on journeys, reuniting with deceased loved ones, seeing stopped clocks. Often the imagery is straightforward. In one woman’s dream, a candle on her hospital windowsill is snuffed out, engulfing her in darkness-a symbol of death that scares her, until the candle spontaneously relights outside the window. A man struggling to find meaning in his life dreams of a square dance in which the partners leave visible traces of their movements, like ribbons weaving a pattern. “There really is a plan after all, isn’t there?” the man asked Bulkley after that dream. “Somehow we all belong to one another.”

But not all pre-death dreams are comforting. They can also frighten the dreamer, who imagines being chased through crumbling cityscapes or hurtling in a driverless car toward a freshly dug ditch or entering the sanctuary of a cathedral, only to have a tornado break through the roof and suck the visitor up into the whirlwind. “I’ve had patients who woke up pounding on the mattress, very agitated, struggling with the idea that they’re going to lose this battle,” says Rosalind Cartwright, chair of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. These dreams are warnings of unresolved issues. But by forcing attention to the underlying problems, nightmares may ultimately help the dreamer find peace. “Ignore them at your peril,” says Cartwright.

It is hardly surprising that pre-death dreams are more urgent, more vivid and more memorable than the run-of-the mill patchwork of dreams. “Throughout life, at acute stages of crisis and transition, the need to dream is intensified,” says psychologist Alan Siegel of the University of California, Berkeley. The more dramatic the event, the more the dreams cluster around solving related emotional issues. Pre-death dreams can be so intense that the dying mistake them for waking reality-especially when the dreams feature dead relatives.

Yet despite the power of these dreams, caregivers often miss the opportunity to explore their meaning. It’s a loss on both sides, according to Bulkley. Talking about end-of-life dreams can give family members a way to broach the uncomfortable topic of death, she says. For the dying, discussing such a dream can provide a simple way to articulate complex emotions-or, if the meaning of the dream is unclear, to fathom its purpose. And to the extent the dying person finds comfort in any such dream, so do surviving relatives. “These are the stories that get repeated at funerals,” says Bulkley. “They become part of the family lore.”

The authors resist the notion that pre-death dreams prove the existence of God. Yet the dying often interpret them as affirmations of faith. On her deathbed, a female cancer patient of Bulkley’s was stricken with doubts about the nature of God. For three nights in a row, she dreamed of huge boulders that pulsated with an eerie blue light. To her, they represented a divine being that was unidentifiable, but very real. “I don’t need to know anything more than that,” she told Bulkley. “God is God.” But she had one final dream. In it, the boulders morphed into steppingstones. In the distance a golden light glowed. “It’s calling me now, and I want to go,” she told Bulkley that morning. She died the next day-at peace.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com

Pictures and Scans of original article 2005 Newsweek
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Dreaming in Christianity and Islam

Bulkeley_LAt a time when Christianity and Islam appear to be mortal enemies locked in an increasingly bloody “clash of civilizations,” new insights are needed to promote better mutual understanding of the two traditions’ shared values.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, and Patricia M. Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2009) provides exactly that.  This new book is a collection of articles by international scholars who illuminate the influential role of dreaming in both Christianity and Islam, from the very origins of those traditions up to the present-day practices of contemporary believers.

Dreams have been a powerful source of revelation, guidance, and healing for generations of Christians and Muslims.  Dreams have also been an accurate gauge of the most challenging conflicts facing each tradition.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam is the first book to tell the story of dreaming in these two major world religions, documenting the wide-ranging impact of dreams on their sacred texts, mystical experiences, therapeutic practices, and doctrinal controversies.

The book presents a wealth of evidence to advance a simple but, in the contemporary historical moment, radical argument:  Christians and Muslims share a common psychospiritual grounding in the dreaming imagination.  While careful, sustained attention will be given to the significant differences between the two traditions, the overall emphasis of the book is on the shared religious, psychological, and social qualities of their dream experiences.

Throughout their respective histories Christians and Muslims have turned to dreams for creative responses to their most urgent crises and concerns.  In this book the contributors apply that same imaginative resource to the current conflict between the two traditions, seeking in the depths of dreaming new creative responses to the global crisis of religious misunderstanding and fearful hostility.  Included in the book are chapters on dreams in the Bible and Qur’an; on the early history of Christian and Muslim beliefs about dreaming; on religious practices of dream interpretation; on the dreams of children, women, college students, and prison inmates; and on the use of dreams in healing, caregiving, and creative adaptation to waking problems.