Aristotle's Styles: On Divination In Sleep

Edmund Hardy

The rhetoric of water often appears in the corpus aristotelicum, refraction, wave, colour, looking into water which then becomes not-water, a day, the mind, the world. The diviner of sleep looks onto currents of dream-water.

When we dream of recent events, the movements of the day have "lain down tracks" (463a25) which the mind follows in sleep, and when we dream of a future, these dream-movements lay down tracks which may be followed in waking life. So some dreams are "signs" (symptoms) of events and others can be considered causes. Aristotle's short On Divination In Sleep tends to switch between these movements and the figure of a large body of water in which human bodies are living and sleeping.

In sleep, the mind works as a form of lucid amplifier, Aristotle writes, so faint external events become encompassing and chaotic. A slight warmth and we are walking through fire. A faint ringing and we fancy thunder and a storm. On this principle, the dreaming mind may also pick up other image-events less immediate and amplify them - transmitted, as a movement in water is, far away from the prime cause, this transmission is aided because it is less windy at night. Thus, random people may suddenly turn prophet, particularly if their minds are already "derelict, or totally vacant" (464a23) or "liable to derangement", the better to be measurement-receptacles caught up in the water-movement.

The water of On Divination begins to get mixed with the idea of the movement-tracks as the text reaches its definition of divination. A series of dream-movements may be unreachable or falsified by day - e.g. these tracks, for the atrabilious, who are mutable, may always get reformed just as "the insane recite the poems of Philaenis, so what they say and think is connected by mere similarity - 'Aphrodite, phrodite' - and thus they go on stringing things together" (464b1-3). We may never understand what we did today; we may fail to see, always, what we are about to do.

Some dreams are vivid and clear while others are images reflected on turbulent water where "internal movement effaces the clearness of the dream" (464b16). A skilled interpreter is required. The task is difficult - someone who has never seen a tree trying to recognise one from its reflection on choppy water may well fail to imagine what is unseen, the tree-future. It is a text which posits - by the existence of this skipping, broken tension of water - a stillness which in its pure form is that of night when the fields may level and line up into one perception, a prophetic surface where everything can be seen.


[#] Aristotle's Styles: On Colour
[#] Aristotle's Styles: On Memory
[#] Aristotle's Styles: Poetics

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