. . . a dreamer passes into another, system, another dimension, another measure wherein time is understood and experienced in ways completely unlike the ways of time in the visible world. In this new experience of time, the dreamer’s time, compared to time in the visible world, runs at infinite speed.
—Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis
I am one of those bitter clingers. Among things I cleave to are spelling rules and all that grammar stuff. Communications mavens and editors of Wired can chirp all they like about the glorious way new technologies liberate spelling from the oppressive dogma of fixed rules. Just give me that old-time ditty: “i” before “e” except after “c” or when sounded like “a” as in neighbor and weigh.
Imagine, then, my distress at waking up at 2:56 AM Tuesday morning with the realization I had misspelled a word on Monday’s post. I pulled myself out of bed and over to the computer to log on to WordPress. I felt furtive, like a clumsy kid who had knocked something over and hoped no one had noticed. But there it was, the dreaded thing: Panza instead of Panzer.
It is all fixed now. But what shattered my sleep to begin with is what brings me to Pavel Florensky.
I had been dreaming about a panda. Gradually, the dream moved into that indeterminate state—we’ve all experienced it—in which we witness ourselves dreaming. Still asleep, I began to wonder how this panda got there. Of all things, why a panda? Then came what Florensky called the denouement of this dream event: the realization that panda was the mind’s half-rhyme for panza! It woke me up on the spot. Oh, good heaven! There was never any such thing as a Panza division. Worse than a misspelling, my panza was an offense against history.
In atonement, I stayed up with “The Spiritual Structure of Dreams,” the opening chapter of Florensky’s Iconostasis. His final theological work, written in 1922, it makes more challenging and exhilarating reading than Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud and Marx, men of their time, claimed the mantle of science for their nonscientific conceptual systems. Florensky was the real thing: a theoretical and applied scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and inventor, no less than a priest and martyr.
In Freudian mythology, dreams comprise the arsenal of a cunning Unconscious at war with its adversary, the conscious mind. Florensky bypasses that slippery old Joker, the unconscious, to approach dreams through the lens of physics. Florensky inquired into—what to call it?—the morphology of dreams with their ever-present, near-physical sense of time in a universe best described as timeless. He insisted that dreams are our first and easiest entry into the invisible; they have their own unique time “that cannot be measured in the terms of the visible world, a ‘transcendental’ time.”
Many would agree [that dreamer's time runs at infinite speed] even with knowing nothing whatever about the principle of relativity, that in different dimensions there is different time and it moves in different speeds and different measures. [Emphasis mine.] Few have sufficiently considered . . . the time that turns inside out, the time that flows backward. For, indeed, very long sequences of visible time can, in the dream, be wholly instantaneous—and can flow for future to past, from effects to causes. This happens in our dreams precisely when we are moving from the visible world to the invisible, between the actual and the imaginary.
“The sleep was brief but the dream was long.” So goes an old adage that Florensky illustrates with a series of different dreams all stemming from the same external stimulus: the ringing of an alarm clock. His first and simplest:
It’s a spring morning and I’m going for a walk through green meadows, and I come to a neighboring village. I see the villagers dressed in Sunday clothes, carrying their prayerbooks, a big crowd of them heading for the church. Today is Sunday and Divine Liturgy will soon begin. I decide to go to Liturgy but I’m a bit warm from walking, so I decide first to rest in the cemetery next to the church. I start to read the epitaphs, and then I notice the bell ringer start to go up the bell tower. The bell must be rung to start the service, but it still hangs unmoving. Then the bell begins to sway and suddenly it peals out in loud, piercing sounds—so piercing, in fact, that I awake to find that the piercing sound is my alarm clock ringing.
For Florensky, a dream is a coherent, self-contained truth in which denouement—that event toward which the logic of the dream proceeds and which wakes us—is pre-determined, and exhibits profound rationality. It is “pure meaning wrapped in the thinnest membrane of materiality; it almost wholly a phenomenon of the other world.”
That “other world” is the one proclaimed at the beginning of the Creed when we profess our faith in the Maker “of all things visible and invisible.” That word invisible is not a rhetorical trope, no mere stylistic antithesis to balance the pairing of “heaven and earth.” It is a description of reality, one that physicists are at home with. (Imagine what we would see if our eyes were sensitive to gamma rays or infrared radiation.)
We can let the string community discuss Florensky’s treatment of space-time applied to dreams in the 1920s, when Einstein was transforming physics and astronomy. For us, one of the most compelling aspects of this remarkable man is that he found in mathematics and science signals of sacrality, holy signs of the reign of the Spirit over time and matter.
In this, Florensky had certain things in common with Teilhard de Chardin—not the burlesque of Teilhard later channeled through Matthew Fox, but the man who grounded his faith in a scientific grasp of the physical world. For Florensky, as for Teilhard, nature is charged with the grandeur of God while it simultaneously possesses and preserves its own objective reality. (Even in a Siberian prison camp close to the Artic Circle, Florensky used his imprisonment to study permafrost and ways to extract iodine and agar-agar from seaweed.)
What Mircea Eliade said of Teilhard de Chardin can be said as well of Florensky: Not only did he offer a bridge between science and Christianity, he also testified to the ultimate sacrality of nature and of life.
Dreams, too, are part of the totality of our lives. That old bedtime phrase “sweet dreams” is more a blessing than we guess.