10 November 1619.
Returning to the army of the Duke of Bavaria, Rene Descartes, then aged twenty-three, found himself caught in a snowstorm in the town of Neubourg on the banks of the Danube. With nothing to do, and no company to do it with, he retreated to his room, contemplating the nature of truth as he sat by the fire, one of those dark night of the soul kind of days that we all have at some point in our lives.
No doubt the effort of all that thinking and the warmth of the room tired him out, though Descartes, always a heavy sleeper who since his school days had rarely risen before noon, probably didn’t need much excuse to sleep.
His dreams when they came were anything but peaceful. And like all the best stories, there were three of them.
In the first, he found himself pursued through the streets by ghosts. We’ve all had dreams like that. Imagine it: the endless pursuit, the knowledge that you’re not going to get away, the terror of what will happen next.
It got worse: a weakness in his right side doubled him up, so that he could hardly walk; to get anywhere he had to lean over to his left, feeling foolish as he edged his way down the street. By then, the ghosts were gone, or forgotten, dissolved back into the oneiric substratum—one less thing to worry about, at least.
When, with a great effort Descartes straightened up, a great wind, more powerful than anything he had ever experienced, spun him round several times, knocking him off his feet. The people going about their business around him had no such trouble, unhindered by the gale, unaware of it, perhaps.
Descartes persisted and, getting to his feet, thought to find sanctuary in a nearby chapel of a college. Here we see the logic of dreams in action: he needed shelter and there it was. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. The wind kept him off-balance, pushing him back. He struggled against it, made progress, one step at a time. But just as it seemed that he might reach the safety of the chapel, he realised that he’d passed an acquaintance and turned to greet the man. The wind seized its chance and knocked him over again. There’s a certain slapstick quality to all this: the prophetic dreams of philosophers played out as a Laurel and Hardy short.
The dream then took a detour into the realm of the absurd as he recognised another figure outside the chapel, this one calling out to him that someone, a certain “Monsieur N”, had a gift that he wanted to give to Descartes. Somehow he came to understand that the gift was a melon from a faraway land.
Descartes woke with a terrible pain in his left side and rolled over to get more comfortable. Contemplating his dream—the weakness, the wind, the business with the melon—he came to the conclusion that a malicious demon was playing a trick on him, trying to pull the wool over his eyes. As good an explanation as any other, I suppose; though not, perhaps, the first that you’d expect from the father of rationalism.
Eventually, he fell asleep again, but soon after a thunderclap in his dream woke him, stars streaming out of his eyes, illuminating the objects in the darkened room so that he could see them all. Sparks in everything.
The experience bothered him less that the first dream, and once more, Descartes went to sleep—of course he did—and dreamt a third peaceful dream where he sat at his table, a book in front of him. On inspection, he found it to be a dictionary and next to it another book, an anthology of poetry, which opened to a suitably weighty Latin phrase: “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” (“Which path in life will I follow?”)
Taken together, the three dreams seem too good to be true. In them, we’ve got the basis for his Meditations twenty years later: the scepticism as to whether we can identify whether we’re awake or dreaming, the idea that a demon might be tricking him at every moment, the wind that allows him to find no refuge in the truths of the Church, the ghosts the half-truths and lies that he has hitherto believed to be true.
And yet we have it all from Descartes’ biographer. But you know what biographers are like, not above embellishing a good story on occasion.
It’s the detail about the melon that gets me. It’s too bizarre to be fabricated, too good to be left out. If you were going to make up a story about how Descartes came up with his philosophy, you surely wouldn’t have included it. What does it mean? What can it symbolise? But once you’ve heard it…
And that’s what dreams are like. They exceed us, escape our attempts to tie them down, bleed into our waking lives. If we try to find a single lesson in them, we’re inevitably disappointed. They trick us, show us things about ourselves we didn’t know, reframe our beliefs.
Might not Descartes have drawn quite the opposite conclusion from his dreams, finding the search for truth to be doomed, absurd:
I think, therefore… a melon?
William Curnow lives in London. He has previously had stories published in Jurassic London and Pornokitch.