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Her Hand on the Mantel

Dreamed before 1894 by Frederick Greenwood

One night I dreamt that, making a call on some matter of business I was shown into a fine great drawing-room and asked to wait. Accordingly, I went over to the fire-place in the usual English way, proposing to wait there. And there, after the same fashion, I lounged with my arm upon the mantel-piece; but only for a few moments. For feeling that my fingers had rested on something strangely cold, I looked, and saw that they lay on a dead hand: a woman's hand newly cut from the wrist.

Though I woke in horror on the instant, this dream was quite forgotten--at any rate for the time--when I did next day make a call on some unimportant matter of business, was shown into a pretty little room adorned with various knick-knacks, and then was asked to wait. Glancing by chance toward the mantel-piece (the dream of the previous night still forgotten), what should I see upon it but the hand of a mummy, broken from the wrist. It was a very little hand, and on it was a ring that would have been a 'gem ring' if the dull red stone in it had been genuinely precious. Wherefore I concluded that it was a woman's hand.

Sketch of a mummy's hand with a ring sporting a red stone.
AFTERWARD

Coincidence. The dream certainly taught nothing, and had no discernable purpose. Yet vision of severed hands on mantel-pieces are not common, and, with or without previous dreaming of it, few men have actually seen one, even when taken from a mummy case, in that precise situation.

Now had I myself rifled the tomb where she reposed from wholm the relic was torn, or had I by any means acquired that poor little brown hand to make bric-a-brac with it, my dream would have been pertinent enough. Then it would have made a pretty tale, with a moral that is not unneeded, perhaps. But, as it is, we can make nothing better of it than a dream gone astray.

--Frederick Greenwood--

EDITOR'S NOTES

Source: Imagination in Dreams by Frederick Greenwood (1894). The account is untitled; Her Hand on the Mantel is just my title of convenience.

Notice Greenwood's extraordinary contortions after the dream. He correctly points out that the coincidence is wildly unlikely. Few people dream even once of finding a severed woman's hand on a mantelpiece, and almost no one's lived it. To find a rarity like this predicted isn't merely as unlikely as the event; it's as unlikely as the rarity of the dream times the rarity of the event. It's bizarre dreams like this one that are the strongest arguments for ESP, not dreams of plane crashes or one's father dying. Some planes crash; every father dies. But this?

Yet Greenwood's a pre-Freudian Victorian, so he concludes the dream must be chance after all, because the dream serves no visible moral function! It's as if he can't acknowledge something's reality unless he can explain it, even approve of it--an attitude still seen among many ESP skeptics: physics rules out the possibility, so why even look at the data?

But data comes first; explanations after. The hand was there.

Greenwood's not even right within his own framework. The dream served at least three useful purposes, one of which meets even Victorian moral standards:

  1. It warns him not to lean on the mantelpiece and crush a real mummy's hand--a prospect he'd find revolting (and as his last paragraph shows, disrespectful to the dead, too). The dream achieves its goal: the next day he scans the mantel rather than leaning casually on it, even if he can't consciously recall why.
  2. It has a moral purpose. By gruesomely highlighting one item on the mantel, one he might well have overlooked, it warns him of the shadiness of the people he's visiting! Greenwood finds such grave-robbing immoral and disrespectful; he concedes that if he'd kept a severed hand on his mantel, the nightmare would indeed have a point, a highly moral one. If so, doesn't his dream expose the immorality of these acquaintances, too? It's a practical warning to shun them, and even an opportunity to shame them; he published this dream, after all. No one could treat mummy-curios so crassly after reading this dream. Not bad for "a dream gone astray."
  3. It demonstrates what dream-ESP can do, of course! Greenwood was researching dreams, including examples of ESP. Yet he fails to consider that his dreaming mind might take notice of this waking concern and help him out in precisely the same way it might warn you who's been filching the silverware (a real example from his book). In fairness, Greenwood isn't uniquely blind. Six years later, Freud too, in The Interpretation of Dreams, never considers his subconscious an equal partner: its thoughts and concerns are infantile, primitive. That dreams could be interested in dream research is inconceivable. And has that really changed?
Sketch of a mummy's hand with a ring sporting a red stone.


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