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The Perfect Musical Genius

Dreamed before 1922 by "Agnes"

Source: The Dream World by Havelock Ellis (1922). Dream-title and dreamer's pseudonym are merely my names of convenience.


Erotic wishes frequently make themselves felt as dreams, both in the infantile and the symbolic form. It is sufficient to bring forward one illustration. It is furnished by a young lady of somewhat neurotic tendencies and heredity, aged twenty-three, musical and intelligent, who was in love with her music-master, the organist at her church. The dream was written down at the time.

--Havelock Ellis


I was at the school of my childhood, and I was told that I was St. Agnes Virgin and Martyr, and in five minutes' time I was to be beheaded with a large knife. The sheen of the blade frightened me so much that I asked if instead I might be strangled by the man I was in love with. Permission was given if I could induce him to come in time.

I ran to our church (saying to myself that I knew it was a dream, but that I must see what he would say) over huge stones that cut my bare feet, and wondered what age I was living in, longing to meet some women in order to find out. When I did, they all wore crinolines.

I rushed up the central aisle, which was full of people, thinking that, as I was going to be killed, nothing could matter. Mr. T. (the organist) was giving a choir practice in the vestry. I ran up to him and said: "Come at once, I am going to be killed."

He became very angry, and said: "Do go away; you are always interrupting my choir practice."

I said: "Don't you understand? I am going to be killed at once; there is a knife hanging over my head, but I would rather be strangled by you, and they said I could if I fetched you in time." As soon as he understood he came at once.

Then it seemed in the dream that we were married, and had a son, who was to be a musical composer. I said I must say goodbye to this son first, and told the nurse to bring him to me. When he came I said: "Good-bye, I am going to be killed."

He said "Mother, am I a boy or a girl? When I am with boys I don't seem like them, and they call me a girl, and yet I don't look like a girl."

I replied, "You are both in one, because you are going to be a perfect musical genius."


In this dream, which represents the fulfilment in sleep of an affection unsatisfied in life, we see side by side the infantile and the symbolic fulfilments of the erotic wish, culminating in a gifted musical child. The wish to be strangled is an undoubted erotic symbol and it is significant that in the course of the dream the accepted death by strangulation became fused with marriage, although the idea of death still inconsistently survives, doubtless because dream consciousness failed to realise that the accepted form of death was a subconsciously furnished symbol of the consummation of marriage.

--Havelock Ellis


Well slap me with a haddock! I'd take it all at face value myself. Time's run out, so with nothing to lose, our gal runs to the man she loves. Her impending death doesn't seem like an erotic symbol to me, but it's a great excuse to FINALLY get Mr Organist's attention. Wish fulfilment? Sure. They marry, they have a child, the Perfect Musical Genius. They can make beautiful music together, baby! ... so why drag in symbolism?

Well, okay. That androgynous child. Now that's intriguing. Is her dream saying...

  1. Male and female brains think differently when it comes to composing music? If so, a cross-gender partnership is as close as most of us can get to being hermaphrodites. So maybe the dream's proposing a strategy to use on Mr. Organist! "If we married, we literally could make Beautiful Music Together--better music than we could apart." Her picture of him does hint that he sees her (and sex?) as distraction(s) from music. So this may be a tactical hint: "Show him that I (and sex) may be a musical asset."
  2. A genius needs great breadth of experience? Then her sexual desire itself may be partly a need to round out her experience of being female, and a way to study at close hand the male experience. Young writers know they'll need to write characters of both genders, but it's an intriguing question for composers. Is musical passion gendered?
  3. If she lands Mr Organist, they'll have an intersex baby! Ellis, like Freud, resists the simplest interpretation of all: none. I've had a hundred dreams I saw as symbolic that turned out to be lost memories (cryptomnesia), current facts I didn't consciously know (subliminal) or couldn't consciously know (clairvoyance and telepathy), or literal predictions. Unlikely here; the Romantic love-death shouts it's fantasy. But still--at least consider literalism before going all Freudian. "Watch out for kitchen knives and martyrdom via the Church Budget Committee, lure your guy using music not in competition to it, and don't freak if your baby's an intersex..." Am I joking? Well... is that reading any dumber than Ellis's?
One last thing. The very first line mentions St Agnes. There's an English folk belief that on St Agnes Eve you can dream of your future spouse. And so she does! In this light, the sudden jump ahead to marriage and an existing child isn't dream-irrationality; there's a time-honored frame justifying her peep into the future--or at least a future. Maybe she will wed Mr Organist. Of course, maybe he'll strangle her, too.

--Chris Wayan

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