The psychic lives of nonhuman dreamers reveal colours, harmonies and beauties of which we had little inkling until now
Due to a case of partial blindness, the French painter Henri Matisse began experimenting with a new artistic method in the final decades of his life. He called it ‘drawing with scissors’. He would cut out large chucks of gouache-painted paper and arrange the pieces into visually arresting feats of abstraction, often depicting vegetable and animal life.
Henri Matisse (France, b.1869, d.1954) The Nightmare of the White Elephant from the illustrated book Jazz 1947. Colour stencil, 42.2 x 65.1 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales/ Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 2014. © Succession H Matisse/Copyright Agency. Image © AGNSW
In one of these cut-outs, Le Cauchemar de l’éléphant blanc (‘The Nightmare of the White Elephant’, 1947), an elephant balances on a circus ball. The animal’s body is traversed by piercing flashes of red, and fenced in on all sides by large and black undulant shapes that resemble some kind of ancestral algae. According to Matisse’s personal assistant, ‘the white elephant is performing its act standing on a ball, under dazzling circus lights, while memories of his native black forest assail him like red tongues of fire, with all the violence of arrows’.
A powerful example of Matisse’s ‘fauvism’ (a style of art named after fauve, meaning ‘wild beast’ in French), this work invites us to consider not only the real-life nightmares that human institutions such as the circus are for the unlucky creatures who end up in them, but also the literal nightmares – and, by extension, dreams – that these creatures experience in these and other places at night, when the body rests but the mind wanders.
Interest in the dreams of animals is nothing new. Nineteenth-century naturalists such as Charles Darwin wrote at length about the dreams of other species from an evolutionary perspective, often to drive home the point that our minds and those of our fellow nonhumans exist on a natural continuum. In The Descent of Man (1871), for instance, Darwin writes:
No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes, – what is death or what is life, and so forth. But can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as shewn [sic] by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures in the chase? and this would be a form of self-consciousness.
Other animals may not ponder deep, existential questions, but the fact that they dream proves that they possess formidable memories and complex imaginations, even if their dreams flow in and out of them, as Darwin says, ‘without the aid of any form of language’.
In 1892, two decades after the publication of The Descent of Man, the Spanish philosopher José Miguel Guardia had an article published in the French journal Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger in which, following Darwin, he maintained that other earthlings are as intimately acquainted with ‘the metamorphoses of the nocturnal imagination’ as we are. Guardia took these metamorphoses to be such an essential feature of the ebb and flow of animal experience that he believed it was time for philosophers to formulate a radically new philosophy of animality – a non-mechanistic one, to be exact.
As psychic events, dreams are too complex to be reduced to a collection of unselfconscious, visceral automatisms. For this reason, the dreams of animals upend the image of the animal-machine that Europeans inherited from René Descartes in the 17th century. If anything, Guardia says, dreams bear witness to the sensibilité intrinsic to animal life.
The word sensibilité is key here. Usually, this term is translated into English as ‘sensation’, creating the unfortunate impression that the only thing under consideration is an animal’s capacity to react instinctively and mechanically to the external world. In its French context, however, the term captures a larger constellation of meanings, including what Anglophones call ‘sensation’, but also ‘sentience’, ‘sensoriality’, ‘sentiment’, ‘sensibility’ and even ‘sense’. Guardia’s argument puts all these associations into play. Thus, when he says that animals have sensibilité, what he is saying is that they register and process all sorts of internal and external stimuli and have various degrees of self-awareness, including their own modes of perceiving and interpreting the world, as well as a layered emotional life. They are subjects who, through their own activity, penetrate the density of existence, endowing it with purpose, sense and meaning.
Asleep, animals also renounce the real world to give themselves over to a phantasmatic universe
In short, Guardia paints a lively picture of nonhuman experience by appealing solely to the dreams of animals. For him, all dreams are unintelligible from within the confines of a mechanistic philosophy and can be understood only from the perspective of ‘comparative psychology’, which treats the psyches of human and nonhuman life forms as variations on a common biological theme. That theme being, of course, the sensibilité proper to animal life. ‘For each of us knows,’ he says, ‘that the partisans of automatism refuse all sensibilité to the animal-machine.’
Unfortunately, the interest in the dreams of animals displayed by thinkers such as Darwin and Guardia began to wane at the turn of the 20th century.The historian of science Iwan Rhys Morus explains that, during this period, the life sciences felt an extraordinary pressure to emulate the methods of the physical sciences and model themselves after their image. In this new climate, it became virtually impossible for the mental feats of animals, which do not lend themselves easily to physical or mechanical explanations, to hold the same sway over the scientific imagination as before.
This pressure remains with us to this day. Even as scientific attitudes have shifted, it is not hard to find prominent scientists who adamantly believe that science should stay far away from any ‘speculative’ debates about the mental states of other animals, especially their dreams. In their view, these debates are roads to nowhere. As long as we lack direct access to the lived experience of other species, we should follow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s advice: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
Yet, new developments in dream and animal sleep research are beginning to push back against this position by suggesting that other animals really do dream; that, upon falling asleep, they also renounce the real world in order to give themselves over to a phantasmatic, unearthly universe of their own creation. [,,,]