Denys, Hervey de Saint

Saint-Denys has become most noted for his amazing ability to master lucid dreaming. A lucid dreamer is consciously aware of being in a dreaming state and is able to direct the course of an ongoing dream. Saint-Denys did not encounter such a dream until his 207th night, but then became so fascinated by its possibilities that he undertook a program of mental “gymnastics” to develop his skills in this area. He was quickly rewarded with Olympian success. Six months later, he was achieving lucidity “on average two nights out of five, and after a year three nights out of four. Finally, after fifteen months, it was present almost every night.” 29 He felt that anyone interested in doing so could develop the “faculties of attention and will during sleep” and thereby gain great benefits.

Saint-Denys proposed that the imaginary events of dreams followed logic which was borrowed from memories of real life. If this were so, he reasoned, he should be unable to have a dream image or sensation for a situation he had never experienced in waking reality. He decided to test his theory by attempting to induce a previously unexperienced event, a suicide jump, into a lucid dream over which he had control. In his next lucid dream, Saint-Denys leaped from the top story of a house which seemed very high. He described his immediate feeling as ‘full of anxious curiosity” as to what would happen next. The dream scene suddenly shifted and he found himself in a crowd gathered around a dead man. When the body was being carried away on a stretcher, someone informed the dreamer that the man had thrown himself from the cathedral tower. As he predicted, Saint-Denys failed to experience the unfamiliar sensation of fatally landing on the ground below.

Saint-Denys noticed that it was much easier to maintain prolonged attention to some small material object, such as a flower or a leaf, than to an animate form, particularly a face. He reported that if he tried “to hang on to a particular idea or image which was tending to slip away,” he would experience a fairly acute pain which pressed against his temples and then “spread to the back of the brain.”

Many fertile ideas for research are scattered throughout Saint-Denys’s provocative book. One of the techniques he advocated to diminish the effects of a disturbing dream would be called desensitisation by modern behaviour therapists. Saint-Denys had a horrifying, recurrent nightmare in which he realised that he had a serpent around his neck instead of a cravat. With his usual investigative zeal, Saint-Denys saw this as an opportunity for an experiment. He took a leather belt filled with lead-shot that rattled and vibrated at the slightest movement and wore this device around his neck for several days. He frequently removed and replaced some of the pieces of shot. The next time his nightmare recurred he “remembered the false serpent and what it contained. .. . I imagined that I removed the inoffensive ‘cravat’ and calmly loaded a gun with the shot.” 3 The dream moved on to an agreeable conclusion. Saint-Denys reported that this disturbing dream “returned once more, with similar results, and then did not appear again.” His conditioning procedure had desensitised him; his horrifying serpent no longer appeared or had the power to terrify him.

It is unfortunate that this classic work was unavailable and remained a collector’s item for nearly a century. One wonders if it would have had any impact upon Freud had he been able to obtain a copy of it. Relying upon some brief references to this book by other French authors, Freud acknowledged that Saint-Denys would have been “the most energetic opponent of those who seek to depreciate psychical functioning in dreams.”

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