Dream, Creativity, and Madness in Nineteenth-Century France

By Tony James | Go to book overview

I
Introduction

In 1769 the first account was published of a dream that was destined to become notorious. The dreamer, the Italian violinist Giuseppe Tartini ( 1692-1770), had made a pact with the Devil. In exchange for his soul, the Devil was prepared to grant his every wish. Tartini handed over his violin, to see if his 'new servant' would play some fine tunes, but 'how great was my astonishment, upon hearing a sonata so singular, so beautiful and executed with such elevation and intelligence that I had never even conceived anything comparable'. Surprise and delight took his breath away, and the strength of this feeling woke him up. Seizing his violin he attempted in vain to recapture the strains he had just heard. Nevertheless, the resulting Devil's Sonata ('Il Trillo del Diavolo') was, he thought, the best he had ever written.1

This story was frequently quoted, and embroidered upon, in the nineteenth century. Less picturesque, but no less frequently quoted, were two references which Cabanis2 inserts into the chapter on sleep in his Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme ( 1802). Cabanis says that a most wise and most enlightened man' ( Benjamin Franklin) believed that on several occasions dreams had informed him about the outcome of affairs which were preoccupying him. Though free from 'prejudice', he had not been entirely able to avoid superstitious ideas about these internal warnings, not realizing that his own capacities of prudence and sagacity were still functioning during sleep, 'as one may frequently observe, even during delirium, of men with trained minds'.3 Cabanis adds that the

____________________
1
The account was published by the French astronomer De La Lande ( 1732- 1808), who had been travelling in Italy. I have not seen the 1st edn. of his work ( 1769) and quote from the 2nd: 'mais quel fut mon étonnement, lorsque j'entendis une sonate si singulière et si belle, exécutée avec tant de supériorité & d'intelligence, que je n'avois même rien conçu qui pût entrer en parallele [sic]'. Voyage en Italie, 2nd edn. ( 9 vols.; Desaint, 1786), ix. 53-7.
2
Succinct biographical notes on most people named in the text will be found in the biographical appendix.
3
'J'ai connu un homme très-sage et très-éclairé, qui croyoit avoir été plusieurs fois instruit en songe, de l'issue des affaires qui l'occupoient dans le moment. Sa tête forte, et d'ailleurs entièrement libre de préjugés, n'avoit pu se garantir de toute idée superstitieuse,

-1-

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