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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. Smoke obscures a balcony where bundled figures collapse from smoke inhalation; 2015 sketch by Wayan of a 1900 dream by JW Dunne

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 [unconscious revision of dream memories in light of later events, to strengthen their resemblance. To rule out paramnesia, dreams 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.

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

EDITOR'S NOTE 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.

Read Dunne's whole book if you can. His experiment: 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 have a constant background of 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. Dunne had warned it wasn't easy! He says he had a terrible time RECOGNIZING even rather obvious parallels to future events; only if he pretended tomorrow was yesterday would it suddenly be clear he had a reference to mark down. He describes it like a sticky film of hypnosis he had to shake himself out of over and over again. A reluctance, even blindness, toward what he had set up the experiment to test! Exactly the opposite of the credulous eagerness I've heard so many skeptics attribute to psychics and dream researchers... It's as if our linear-timed culture had him in a hypnotic trance so deep he couldn't see the evidence before him without constant effort.

Like him, I felt deep reluctance--even a refusal to see blatant echoes. When at last I too pretended tomorrow was yesterday, the parallels were suddenly obvious. Impressive to read him nailing the disorientation I got, as habit and training pulled me one way and experience pulled me another.

Dunne's model: a dreaming mind routinely sees spacetime events as if they were a landscape spread out below a balloon; things directly below (both past and future) are very clear, but increasingly foreshortened as one looks further into the distance. Whether there's curvature, a horizon, Dunne couldn't say; he had at least one precognition years before the event (a vivid peak experience: flying in an experimental plane). Like a peak on or over the horizon? But for events near us in spacetime, past and future don't mean much.

Till we wake.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: predictive dreams - nightmares - gimme air! - fire - dying in dreams - death in general - dreamwork - clocks and time perception - J.W. Dunne

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