Frederik van Eeden
Lucid Dreamer Extraordinaire
Frederik van Eeden At an age when English and American youngsters read Thomas Hardy or Henry James, their Dutch counterparts are presented with Frederik van Eeden for literary enlightenment. Their Dutch teacher will tell them about Van Eeden's involvement with other literary greats of the period and about his zeal for world improvement ending in the badly managed colony in the wilds of 'Het Gooi', the leafy suburban region just east of Amsterdam. The teacher may even quote Van Eeden's mocking rhymes of the widely admired clergymen poets of his days. But not a whisper about his interest in dreams and certainly not about his contributions to dream research. So it was in my case. Thus, when I first started getting interested in dreams and hearing Van Eeden's name I was nearly convinced that this could not be the Van Eeden I had been told of, the famous novelist and misguided world reformer. So it is partly from a personal righting of this wrong that I write here about Frederik Van Eeden, dreamer and dream researcher.
Terminology and classification
To Van Eeden, born in 1860, the term 'lucid dreams' is attributed. What strikes me as curious is that no source attributes the term to anybody else but neither is there any source that dares state without any qualification that Van Eeden coined this phrase. General scholarly caution or is there more to it? Van Eeden uses the term 'lucid dreams' in his famous address to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London on the 22nd of April 1913, A Study of Dreams. Van Eeden was a fluent speaker and writer of several languages among which English, so no translator was involved in converting the term from Dutch to English. Besides, his choice of the English word matches the way he describes these dreams in his dream journal as 'helder', a Dutch word that has several related meanings among which 'lucid'. From January 1898 Van Eeden continues to use the word 'helder' when he refers to dreams in which he is aware that he is dreaming. And when Van Eeden, in his address to the SPR, tries to rebut in advance any possible charges that the phenomenon he describes is not a dream he says, 'If anybody refuses to call that state of mind a dream, he may suggest some other name. For my part, it was just this form of dream, which I call "lucid dreams"...'. All in all, the caution exhibited in the attribution of the term to Van Eeden seems to be of the scholarly kind, rather than based on a suspicion that it is not Van Eeden himself who coined the term.
Another term he uses in the context of lucid dreaming in the early years of his very personal dream research is 'continuity' - or lack of it - for the experience of continuity of waking awareness during the dream, so different from our use of 'continuity' in the 'continuity vs compensation' debate. He clearly regards this continuity as an aspect of his lucid dreams, which by the way agrees with contemporary theories about lucid dreaming. Illustrations of his use of this term:
In later years he no longer uses this term, although he frequently reports the phenomenon. Perhaps just as well as otherwise we might have had to find a different word for what we now call 'continuity'. Van Eeden's classification of dreams has not found too much support, probably rightly so. To my mind it is interesting mainly in the same way that all dream classifications are interesting: they tend to say a lot about the author's theory or vision of dreams if not always too much about the kinds of dreams that may occur. The nine kinds of dreams Van Eeden mentions (I have kept the letters he himself uses for each category), with some of his descriptions:
His classification shows his fascination with the two states of waking and sleeping and their interaction. It also shows his obsession with the dark side of life, with demons that mock and play pranks, something I will come back to later. What his classification also reveals is that Van Eeden is very serious about the subject of dreams, particularly those of himself. He has painstakingly documented and considered his dreams for over three decades.
Van Eeden sets the tone for his inquiries into dreams and dreaming in the first dream he writes down in his dream journal in 1889:
All through his journal there are frequent entries documenting dreams that we would now probably refer to as 'pre-lucid'. He mentions nested dreams, dreams in which he is aware of the oddity of certain phenomena and a great deal of dreams of flying or floating or occasionally jumping. Van Eeden in his SPR address states that 'flying or floating ...is generally an indication that lucid dreams are coming', a thought which many lucid dreamers would still agree with. He makes very clear that lucid dreaming is his aim. And this is where his experiments focus on: to get lucid dreams, and to test out various things once he is in that desired state. One of the main areas he focuses on is perception. Perception
The perception of his body and the difference between his dream body and his waking body fascinates Van Eeden. His delight when he is aware of the two as separate when he is in the process of waking up shines through in his writing, 'It is like the feeling of slipping from one body into another, and there is distinctly a double recollection of the two bodies.' Later, when he is very sad in a dream and starts crying but finds on waking to his surprise that he has shed no tears, he wonders, 'how I could have such a clear recollection of dreamt tears. Would it be possible for our dream or astral bodies to shed dream tears?' In another dream he is eating a slice of cake and 'while my mouth was full this sensation was so clear that I thought I would wake up with my mouth full. Then I wanted to wake up and curious was the moment that my mouth emptied itself and I had come back into my waking body'.
Again and again, however aware he is of the difference between the dreaming and waking states, he is surprised that the actions of his dream body have so little impact on those of his waking body. In a dream in 1901 he is lucid and recalls his intention to pray and he goes on to report, 'Then I started waking up and I was convinced that I would wake up on my knees and with my hands folded. But slowly the transition came and I turned out to be lying on my side and with my hands apart.' But whereas in 1901 he was still surprised to have his hands in a different position on waking, his surprise in 1920 is equally great when the reverse happens, albeit in a non-lucid dream. He dreams that he is in a house with a renowned freethinker and revolutionary, D.N., and that they pray together. He reports, 'When I woke up I felt I was lying with my hands folded as never before. So I must have folded them in my sleep (his emphasis) for the sake of D.N.'
Apart from focusing on his kinaesthetic awareness he also pays attention to perception via his other senses. His hands are often subject of his visual interest. He sees what they look like, sees the rings on his fingers or sees them in a totally different way, 'I saw my hands in front of my face, they were brownish and covered in moss. I wondered whether this was some kind of decomposition and whether I would be able to see my skeleton-hands'. At some later stage he focuses on the way in which he sees his hands, of which he says, I can't describe this, I saw them clearly and yet, it was as if there was something in between my eyes and its object. It is such a subjective way of seeing, I would say'.
In April 1917 vision as a whole is his object of interest. He sounds nearly biblical when he starts talking about this, 'And I reflected upon and beheld the function of seeing. I saw that this was a different seeing from that in waking life. Things seemed to have no substance, shape and colour were not consistently combined...But the most curious thing was to follow. I fell asleep again and seemed to wake up afterwards. And then I compared the seeing of before and the seeing of this moment. Although I was dreaming all the time but unaware of it. I said: "Now everything is objectively there, so now things do have substance. This real seeing is far more solid and true."'
The sense of hearing features in his dreams and reflections as well, though less prominently. In a lucid dream in 1908 he starts singing and yelling loudly, knowing that he cannot be heard, but 'my voice echoed so clearly in the marble hall that this seemed incredible. Only on waking up truly did I realise that I had been fast asleep and had not made a sound.' In another dream hearing crops up in a different way when he is lucid and can hear himself snore. Thus, his reflections and reports on hearing in his dreams seem to be very similar to his observations about the difference between the two bodies, both the surprise about the difference between dreaming and waking states and the awareness, from within the dreaming state, of the waking object, i.e. the body and the sound respectively.
The senses of taste and smell have a minor role to play in his reports as they would in most reports on dreams. When he has stopped smoking he first has the usual dreams of a person in such a situation of smoking followed by shame for what he has done. But then he has a lucid dream in which he is happy that he can still have the pleasure of smoking without having broken his promise to give it up. In another dream he 'saw a decanter with claret and tasted it, and noted with perfect clearness of mind: "Well, we can also have voluntary impressions of taste in this dream-world; this has quite the taste of wine."'
For a zealous man such as Van Eeden it is obviously not enough to reflect on things as they happen, he also sets himself tasks to perform during his dreaming state. A frequently undertaken task is to find a particular person and talk with him or her, or even just to find the person. One of the people he tries to find frequently in his dreams is Myers, a friend from the SPR circle. Another person is Paul, his son, after he has died. Sometimes his intentions are more general as when his intention is to pray and ask, 'Is what I'm trying to do at present the right thing? I have started, I am resolved and do not want to go back but am I doing the right thing? Please give me a sign.' He then sees a small grey cloud and considers this a warning. Whether he acted on this warning is unknown. As the dream is in a period when he sets up his consumers co-operation which is going to go bankrupt in a couple of years, one might assume he did not.
His experiments with perception and the intentions he plans and carries out do not constitute all of his research into his own dreams. He tries out suggestions to himself in the dream to be acted upon in waking life; he tries some mutual dreaming; he tries to heal himself of a minor illness and the list does not end here.
But he was not only a fairly objective and systematic observer of, and experimenter with, his own dreams, he was also a man who was deeply involved with his dreams, who suffered from them and delighted in them. Gods and demons
Van Eeden's moods in his dream journal often veer between utter delight and great despondency. He is a romantic in his fascination with different states of consciousness, with ecstatic experiences and deeply felt personal experiences. But there is also the high moral attitude of the Victorians and the deep regret of his own sins and failings.
His demons are many. Some of them he seems to acknowledge as his own shortcomings. He has the Victorian abhorrence of his own sensuality and frequently refers to having 'lubric' dreams, lewd dreams of which he is terribly ashamed. There are also dreams in which he comes across lascivious women where he takes the blame at least for being attracted, if not for their appearance in his dreams. Usually, though, he locates the demons outside himself as his classification suggests. Although in his address to the SPR he does admit that 'the real existence of beings whom we may call "demons" is problematic' he shows no signs of locating them within. That he seems better able to cope with the demons outside than with his own sinful longings is quite understandable in this context. He often fights them or attacks them in another way. In 1901 he attacks a demon who pretends to be his, Van Eeden's, father and reports in his journal on his words to the demon and the effect they have, '"how would you like it if I gave you a blue nose?" Immediately his nose turned dark blue. He wanted to resist and looked maliciously subdued. He then managed to change the blue colour into all kinds of different shapes and forms without getting rid of it. I said, "no, plain blue!" but I was not strong enough and he kept resisting.' The fighting clearly strengthens him even if it is not always successful, and it is not hard to see why demons out there which can be hated and fought openly, are easier to deal with than one's own admitted sins.
But although there are many dreams he is ashamed of or unhappy about, there are far more that offer him great delight and bring him peace and harmony. These are the lucid dreams in which he sees his beautiful landscapes, in which he feels uplifted and cannot stop thanking god. And he has many such ecstatic experiences, as in January 1903, 'The scenery was beautiful beyond description, a valley with trees and flowers and mountains and a blue sea with sparkling sunlight. I began to enjoy great happiness and thanked God and said, "Beloved", and I knew that the scenery was His face.'
In the introduction of his SPR address he speaks of the people needed to take steps forward in this 'subtle and highly spiritual order of phenomena', and he is not overly modest in this: 'In this field the pioneers have to be either poetic scientists or scientific poets; for it is the poet - if at least we can take this word in its highest, deepest sense - whose natural passion it is to explore the extreme regions of the human soul and whose continual aspiration it will be to create new moral values and new ways to express them.' This is Frederik van Eeden, pioneer of dreaming.
Fontijn, Jan (1990)
Tweespalt. Het leven van Fredrik van Eeden tot 1901. (Biography of first part of Van Eeden's life) Amsterdam: Querido.
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books.
Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990)
Freud, Van Eeden and Lucid Dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18-28.
Van Eeden, F. (1913)
A study of dreams. In Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 26, 431-461. Reprinted in: http://www.lucidity.com/vanEeden.html (partial); in Dromenboek (Dutch translation).
Van Eeden, F. (1978)
Dromenboek (Dream Journal). Ed.and introd: Dick Schl?ter. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.