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A Factory Fire

Dreamed 1900 by J. W. Dunne

I dreamed that I was standing on a footway of some kind, consisting of transverse planks flanked on my left side by some sort of railing, beyond which was a deep gulf filled with thick fog. Overhead, I had an impression of an awning. But this last was not clearly seen, for the fog partly hid everything except three or four yards of the planking ahead of me with its attendant portion of railing and gulf.

Suddenly I noticed, projecting upwards from somewhere far down in the gulf, an immensely long, thin, shadowy thing like a gigantic lath. It reached above the plankway, and was slanted so that it would, had the upper end been visible through the fog, have impinged upon the awning. As I stared at it, it began to wave slowly up and down, brushing the railing. A moment later I realized what the object was. I had seen just such a thing once before in a cinema picture of a fire, in the early days of cinematography. Then, as now, I had undergone the same puzzlement as to what this sort of waving lath might be, until I had realized that it was the long water-jet from a fire-engine hose, as photographed through intervening smoke. Somewhere down in that gulf, then, there must be a fire-engine, and it was playing a stream of water upon the smoke-hidden, railed structure where I stood.

As I perceived this, the dream became perfectly abominable. The wooden plankway became crowded with people, dimly visible through the smoke. They were dropping in heaps; and all the air was filled with horrible, choking, gasping ejaculations. Then the smoke, which had grown black and thick, rolled heavily over everything, hiding the entire scene. But a dreadful, suffocated moaning continued--and I was entirely thankful when I awoke.

I was taking no chances with "Identifying Paramnesia" this time [a theory explaining away predictive dreams; it claims that a dream a bit like a later waking event is unconsciously revised in light of the event, to fit better. To prevent paramnesia, all details must be written before any news has arrived]. I carefully recalled every detail of the dream after waking, and not till I had done this did I open the morning papers. There was nothing in these. But the evening editions brought the expected news.

There had been a big fire in a factory somewhere near Paris. I think it was a rubber factory, though I cannot be sure. At any rate it was a factory for some material which gave off vile fumes when burning. A large number of workgirls had been cut off by the flames, and had made their way out on to a balcony. There, for the moment, they had been comparatively safe, but the ladders available had been too short to admit of any rescue. While longer ones were being obtained, the fire-engines had directed streams of water on to the balcony to keep that refuge from catching alight.

And then there happened a thing which must, I imagine, have been unique in the history of fires. From the broken windows behind the balcony the smoke from the burning rubber or other material came rolling out in such dense volumes that, although the unfortunate girls were standing actually in the open air, every one of them was suffocated before the new ladders could arrive.


account from J.W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time, 1927, quoted in The Dream World (Ed. R.L. Megroz, 1939)

Read Dunne's whole book if you can. Just to see what would happen, he wrote a detailed journal of waking and dream events and then deliberately ignored time's arrow, comparing the fit of a dream both to the previous day and the next day. He found a Gaussian distribution of references: dreams mostly referred to the previous or the next day, often-but-less to two days later or earlier, still less to three days before or after... As far as he could tell, his dreams were processing recent experiences--but near-future experiences were as common as near-past ones! He concluded that even though spectacular dreams of crises, like this one, monopolize our attention (both scientifically and in folklore), we probably all have constant small predictive flashes--some potentially useful, many not, most not even noticed.

I tried Dunne's method--comparing dreams to both past and future days, impartially. As Dunne had warned, it wasn't easy! Like him, I felt deep reluctance--even a refusal to see obvious parallels. At last I pretended tomorrow was yesterday--and suddenly it'd be blatant!

Once I corrected for my own temporal bias in this way, I too found constant references in a bell curve around the present. Predictive dreams seemed common, trivial, purposeless. Such results suggest ESP's ubiquitous, and isn't triggered by crises, tragedy or danger. The dreaming mind just lives in a different temporal landscape than waking consciousness. In dreams, some events loom near and others are over the horizon--but waking notions of past and future are just compass directions!

--Chris Wayan

The mind as a balloon sailing over the landscape of spacetime; the present, beneath, is easy to see, while both future and past grow foreshortened near the horizon.

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