restricted access The Melon and the Dictionary: Reflections on Descartes's Dreams
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The Melon and the Dictionary:
Reflections on Descartes's Dreams

The interpretation of dreams is rarely answerable to either evidential or settled theoretical control. When the phantasms of the dreaming mind seem unaccountable, as they often do, they seem to belong to a mental world beyond the reach of historical, philosophical, or scientific analysis, a world for which the rules of methodological engagement seem inappropriate, rather than merely impossible to observe. So in advance we ask the reader's indulgence if we appear somewhat to ignore the historian's normal duty to transmute favored speculations into well-argued conclusions based on solid evidence. We do have evidence to present, however, and indeed one or two conclusions that seem to us compelling. But if skeptics question their value, at least they will do so without envy, since they will not want to chase after our speculations on the Dreams—unless with the intention of chasing them and us out of the Cartesian arena altogether.

Most of that arena is set aside for exegetical tussles with the respectable philosophizing of the Meditations, the Discourse on Method, and The Principles of Philosophy or The Passions of the Soul. But for some of the liveliest Cartesian games, you must move to that part of the arena where biographers, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and historians have fun with the "petit registre en parchemin," as the Stockholm Inventory describes it.1 This notebook contained [End Page 651] the twelve-page Olympica, in which Descartes recounted the three Dreams, announced his discovery of the foundations of "a wonderful science," and in the margin of the manuscript noted a year later his emerging understanding of "the foundation of a wonderful discovery." Later we'll rerun a few of the Olympian performances of previous interpreters, as preliminaries to a couple of our own interpretative games.

First let us recall what happened on Saint Martin's Eve, the night of 10 November 1619, in Descartes's twenty-fourth year.2 In the days preceding that night Descartes's concern with the search for truth gave him much mental torment which the society of his friends could not dissipate. This tired him so much that his brain became inflamed: "he fell into a kind of enthusiasm, which left him in such a state that his depressed spirit was ready to receive dreams and visions." Retiring to bed "full of enthusiasm" from "having found that day the foundations of a wonderful science," Descartes (Baillet tells us) had three dreams "which he imagined could have come only from on high." In Dream I, while he was walking through the streets, his imagination was haunted by terrifying phantoms (fantômes). A severe disabling weakness in his right side forced him to bend over to his left so that he could continue toward his destination. Ashamed of walking in that way, he tried to straighten up, but a strong whirlwind spun him round three or four times on his left foot. Still more terrifying was the thought that he was falling at every step because of the difficulty in dragging himself through the streets.

Then seeing a college with open gates, he entered, seeking relief from his afflictions, and intending to pray in the college chapel. But he had passed someone he knew without hailing him. He tried to return to greet him and was hurled back by the wind blowing against the chapel. At the same time he saw in the middle of the college courtyard another person who greeted him civilly by name, and told him that if he cared to look for Monsieur N., "he had something to give him." "M. Descartes imagined that it was a melon that someone had brought from some foreign country." But even more surprising was the fact that those who gathered round him to talk were standing straight and firm on their feet, whereas he was still bent over and staggering about, even though the wind which had threatened several times to blow him over had now greatly abated. At this point he awoke to feel a pain that made him fear that all this was the [End Page 652] work of...