Nightmares in literature and art

Nightmares in literature and art

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“The key to realizing the essence of conscious soul life lies in the region of the unconscious. All difficulties, indeed all apparent impossibilities of a true understanding, become clear from here. ”Carl Gustav Carus (1846). Dreams have played a key role in European art and literature - since ancient times.

From antiquity to modern

In the seals of ancient Greeks and Romans, the line between literature and faith blurs because dreams also contain messages from the gods. In modern times, the dream motif is a wild card of the author, since readers, unlike the characters, often know that it is a dream and what causes it. In the fantastic literature, tension also arises from the fact that the reader, like characters, often does not know whether it is a dream or not.

The author introduces the reader deeper and deeper into a dream world and only at the end clarifies whether all this really happens and is connected with supernatural events, or explains himself rationally when the characters wake up from the dream. Or else, the end remains open - here nightmares offer a steep template, because in real dreams people take the moods into the daily routine.

Anarchic lust for the freedom of dreams

Felix Krämer writes in his essay "Black Romanticism - An Approach": "When in Dali's painting The Dream, caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate, a tiger falls on a naked woman a second before awakening when the abdomen does so Predators grow out of the open mouth of a fish and this in turn peels out of a pomegranate when the pointed bayonet of a flying rifle threatens to pierce the naked body while an elephant walks past on its endlessly long spider legs, then the anarchic becomes Pleasure in the world of dreams clearly. "

The painter Max Ernst, a philosopher and psychologist, even asked "to dissolve the boundaries between the so-called inner world and the outer world."

Nightmares - a playground for creative people

Nightmares offer a rich breeding ground for artists: They are not narrowed down by a frame, as a literary motif they go beyond the framework given by everyday reality; they may contradict logic and even natural laws and thus enable a maximum of creative development.
Consequently, Goethe like Schiller, Lessing or Diderot bathed in dreams - with one important limitation. In the Age of Enlightenment, the dreaming remains involved in his external reality. Reason embeds the dream event.

The black romance

“There are two layers of the soul in which people express themselves more freely and unconditionally: the areas of the dream and the unconscious. When they were accepted as decisive forces, the turn to romanticism was made, ”wrote Einstein.

Around 1800, Romantic artists no longer saw the inexplicable and mysterious as a problem but as a source of inspiration. Instead of the visible and measurable, they were enthusiastic about the numinous: the bizarre, the madness and the nightmare were more attractive to them than the immaculate.

Black romanticism loved the irrational, the eerie, the ghostly and the demonic-grand. The painters and writers who had fallen into love explored the worlds of nightmares, mental disorders, fears and the dark side of humanity as far as possible. They no longer wanted to show the border between nightmare and reality at all, but wanted to lift this border in their works.

Her ideal was to come close to the dream with narrative forms; her characters found themselves in twilight, twilight and the otherworld, where the shadows come to life and the appearance becomes reality. The black romanticism begins where reason ends and the figures of the repressed emerge. The nightmare became the model for a poetic model.

Piranesi and "The Nightmare"

The artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi is one of the models for Black Romanticism. His engravings from the second half of the 19th century such as "The Drawbridge" show underground dungeons and depressing settings.

Leading writers of black romanticism such as Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire or E.T. A. Hoffmann interpreted Piranesi's visions as artist's nightmares.

Another milestone in the nightmares recorded in the picture was "Der Nachtmahr" by Johann Heinrich Füssli from 1781. Nightmare means in English nightmare and at the same time denotes a demonic horse. Nightmare comes from the Alb (Elf), who, in popular belief, sat on the dreamer's chest with a terrible dream.

Füssli implemented these ideas directly. A woman in a white nightie is sleeping on her bed while an ugly nude alb is perched on her chest, a creature with oversized ears, an old man's face with ape-like features, and a malicious expression on her face. A ghostly gray horse with white eyeballs without pupils looks out of the darkness in the background.

Johannes Grave writes in his essay "The" Night Pages of Fine Art "around 1800": "Obviously, the picture shows neither the woman who is beset by the nightmare nor the scary dream itself Manner that also makes the viewer shiver. "

Grave describes how this happens: "Although he may initially think he is at a safe distance from the scene, his gaze threatens to assume voyeuristic features to the same extent as the pairs of eyes of the Alb and the horse's head suggest." The viewer also loses control : “The fact that such a look no longer shows rational control and sovereignty is illustrated by the horse's ghostly empty, yet strangely shining eyeballs. The gaze itself seems to be a source of violence and terror. ”

According to Grave, there is no objective view: “In this way, Füssli's Nachtmahr not only demonstrates the peculiar crossing of boundaries between reality and fiction that is unique to every dream picture. Rather, the painting makes it clear that we cannot gain a secure, external point of view in order to be able to look at the momentum of the dreamlike appearances as supposedly uninvolved.

Füssli's topics were the eternal conflict between good and bad, light and dark, dream and waking state.

Sigmund Freud hung a copy of the "Nachtmahr" in the entrance of his psychotherapeutic practice.

The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters

In 1797 Francisco de Goya drew the first sketches of his work "The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters", which can be seen today in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Grave writes: “It is the birth of phantoms and monsters from the interplay of free imagination and unleashed hand that the viewer sees delivered. (…) The drawing, it soon becomes clear, not only reflects the self-activity of the imagination in sleep and dream, but is its venue and form of execution. "

Goya also moved the limits of the real with his style: “He offers the basis for the uncanny, cruel or embarrassing scenes to be neither clearly related to reality nor to a distant fantasy world alone. By foregoing the classic linear perspective and thus an unequivocal clarification of the spatial relationships and instead emphasizing the reason, which sometimes appears as a surface, sometimes as a depth (...), he settles his representations in a placeless interim world that is nevertheless full of references Is reality. "

His art “no longer serves solely to make the imaginable worlds of imagination difficult to visualize, but also plays a decisive role in producing these eerie images,” says Grave.

Hubertus Kolbe interprets the work in his contribution “Nightmare Fear Apocalypse. The uncanny and catastrophic in modern art ":" The monsters always come out when reason withdraws - to let the unclear of imagination, the wild leaps of fantasy, the uncontrollable of creativity take precedence. "He also gives an explanation of why nightmares not only scare but also attract: "The terrible is both appealing and repulsive, it fascinates and generates disgust, whoever falls for it will only get rid of him at the price of (...) boredom."

Dreams of fear of death

Romantic works from Baudelaire to Novalis, from Tieck to Kleist, from Hoffmann to Poe are impossible without dreams. Some stories by E.T. Hoffmann or Edgar Allan Poe are nothing more than dreams of the fear of death that have become literature, Baudelaire celebrates the bizarre borderlessness that we experience in nightmares.

The dreaming is the hero of romance

For the romantics, reality was their dreamy fairy tale world, the unconscious, their hero the longing dreamer, enjoyment was the ultimate purpose of
Life. Imagination and mind should fill the sober world with life, ambiguity and ambiguity, blurring of forms and genres put the opposition to the primacy of the mind. Complete subjectivity, individualization, freedom, cosmopolitanism were the attitudes that the romantics contrasted with the bourgeois virtues of modernity, diligence, accuracy, punctuality and economy.

Break the line between dream and reality

"The world becomes a dream, the dream becomes a world," wrote the romantic Novalis. The romantic poets built illusions that destroyed them; they wanted to poetize life; they broadened the scope for empathy, they celebrated all transitions, transvestism and put free imagination above form. They wanted to break the line between science and poetry, dream and reality.

Imagination and reality cannot be clearly separated in the stories and images of the romantics, they work precisely through the play with illusion and disillusion and put the sensory impressions of the reader and the viewer to the test.

Mareike Hennig writes in "What you saw in the dark ... Black romanticism in German painting until 1850": "Darkness and nighttime are no longer just home to danger and terror, but also to mystery and dream, areas that abyss, but can also lead to knowledge, ambivalent and attractive at the same time. "

Roland Borgards describes in "The light was removed - On the literature of black romanticism" the special meaning of night and dream for romanticism: "The enlightening preference for the day, the brightness, the clarity and associated vision, thinking, order and rationality, with that of Romanticism, stand in the way of an apparently light-sensitive, light-shy epoch. "

In the wake of the Enlightenment

At the same time, however, the romanticism's passion for the unconscious, madness and nightmare requires enlightenment. Psychology in literature unfolds for the first time in Romanticism and its need to express the shadow contents of the psyche as directly as possible.

Novalis didn't think much of rational thinking. For him it was "just a dream of feeling, a dead feeling, a pale gray, weak life". In the dream, the romantics assumed the essence of poetry - but saw it as an essential source of knowledge.

Psychoanalysis and regressive longing

A premonition of the meaning of the unconscious discussed decades later in psychoanalysis combined with the longing to come close to the archaic origins of human existence. Thus Schlegel sketched dreams as "thread of another dark consciousness (...) which seems to wander around in the random game, but actually only follows another and own law of visual similarity or the elective affinity of the inner feeling; and this ability of the imagination, which acts in consciously and unconsciously in dark and light images, is also that it shares mastery over the level-headed and alert state of man with reason, also the dark dream world of slumbering consciousness is given away. ”

Trance states

The romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich wrote: “Close your bodily eye so that you can see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to light what you saw in the dark, that it affects others from the outside in. “The really threatening does not arise in the outside world, which is depicted, but in his own brain - this also applies to the nightmare.

In Germany the Romantics combined the idea of ​​a system change with a withdrawal from society; the transfiguration of everyday life should change it. Rousseau's idea of ​​the state of nature was the model for the glorification of an original, unreflected understanding of the world, which modern people had lost and which only existed among children and the people.

A longing, whose goal had to remain undetermined, found its places: ruins, castles, cemeteries, forests, caves and generally original natural landscapes, but also the "Orient", the "Orient" or other distant countries.

Romantics like Clemens von Brentano deliberately entered states between dream and wakefulness and tried to capture the imagery that appeared there. This created extremely associative moods, always connected with an overlapping crisis and an atmosphere of doom that knew no literary boundaries: nightmare, premonition of death and feeling merged.

Ludwig Tieck, Joseph von Eichendorff, but also Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe created new opportunities to bring the nightmare into the literature. Leading the way were, among others, "The Elixirs of the Devil" (1815-16) by E.T. Hoffmann.

Art and psychoanalysis

In the early days of psychoanalysis, 1881, Max Klinger created the graphic "Fears": A man is sleeping on a pillow. Horror characters guide the dreaming to a glove that has become a fetish of love in the graphic series, but is now turning into a danger.

Kohl writes that (Klingers) quite modern sheets not only bring the associativity of the dream into an aesthetically adequate form, but also structurally. "

In “I saw a great pale light”, Odilon Redon finally no longer showed the dreaming, but the nightmare itself, a large, pale light that emerges from the darkness. Redon painted "like a dream", says Kohl: "The elements of a coherent narrative are put together in such a way that the coherence is lost. That which deeply confuses the viewer results more from this disparity than from the darkness of the (...) narrative itself. "

The Expressionists

The romantics intoxicate themselves in all dream worlds. For the Expressionists after and during the First World War, however, the focus was on the nightmare. Works such as "Cocaine" by Gottfried Benn or "Decay" by Johannes R. Becher are worded dreams of doom, the destruction of people and the annihilation of the world.


"I believe in the future dissolution of these seemingly contradictory states of dream and reality in a kind of absolute reality, if one can say: surreality", postulated in 1924 the founder of surrealism, André Breton.

Freud's dream interpretations shaped Surrealism as well as Expressionism's nightmares. The unconscious was the primary reason for art, their own psyche the central theme of their art. They sought truth in intoxication, madness and dreams. Contradictions like life and death, dream and reality should create a dreamlike super-reality in order to liberate people.

Ingo Borges writes in “The omnipotence of dreams. Romanticism and Surrealism ”:“ (…) no “Gothic novel” can do without night pictures. For the surrealists, too, the night was the time when people were thrown back on themselves and confronted in the dream with the repressed and unconscious. ”

H.P.'s nightmare worlds Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is one of the best-known authors of incredibly fantastic stories. Above all, his stories are universes of fear. Inhuman beings rule his worlds, for them civilizations are just a ball of cosmic power games.

Literature and dream

Lovecraft's quality does not consist in subtle actions, complex characters or astonishing punch lines, but in drawing the reader directly into the images of nightmare worlds. His literary skills were always controversial; many critics considered him to be an amateur, whose heaped adjectives and recurring patterns of old books, sinister cults and ominous creatures would remind one of the penny novels. This is an open question.

However, the connection between literature and dream is important for the author. Lovecraft's repetitive cosmic threats, hell-throats, dilapidated cities, rotten jungles and "indescribable" monsters from another world reflect images of the unconscious as they occur in dreams. Lovecraft does not analyze the disintegration of the individual psyche like Edgar Allan Poe, but rather he represents the abyss instead of clearing it up and therefore leaves the images standing.

The narrator gets into a nightmare

As in a bad dream, Lovecrafst narrators experience events that do not fit into their order of space and time. In contrast to the classic short story, the narrator's actions are completely unimportant for this horror - except that they open Pandora's box. Horrible rites, dark cults, forests full of monstrosities characterize even the horror in atmospheric density. The individual is unimportant, the world itself becomes horror, which is comparable to the pattern of dream images.

Nightmares show the truth

The narrator's dreams also play a decisive role in the stories themselves, be it that a person in “Shadows from Time” dreams of his existence in the body of an ancient species and thus of an experienced reality, be it in the “Dream Search for the unknown Kadath ”that the narrator becomes the creator of the world through his dreams.

The narrators, whether artists or scientists, recognize that the myths of the old books and traditions that they themselves believed to be fairy tales are true. They design one everyday statement after another for horror, and yet step by step doubt more about their rational explanations. Dream images that, like C.G. Jung patterns of the unconscious are empirically confirmed and come into the real world. The world is becoming abnormal.

Horror without awakening

Instead of waking up from the dream, the narrators realize at the end that “everything is right”. Individual images keep returning like the howling of the wind in "Mountains of Madness". The narrator himself is startled by his experiences, as if in a dream before awakening, the images condense more and more at the end of the stories. They resemble more and more fever fantasies, psychoses or manias, i.e. the states in which internal and external reality are no longer distinguishable for those affected.

Dream, delusion and reality

The narrator himself considers the experiences to be dreams until, in psychiatry or in preparation for suicide, he realizes that they are not. Images of the unconscious, as they spread in dreams, become events in the material world in the stories of the author. It is in this border crossing that the horror of Lovecraft's stories lies.

Dream without resolution

His mythical beings, old gods, Yog-Sothoth, Cthulhu or Shub-Niggurath, remain in the mysterious, like a dream that is not analyzed, not dissected, not classified. This darkness, this ambiguity, in Freud's id, overwhelms the narrator, and at best the reader. There is no resolution that could bring structure and order. The unknown itself triggers fear as in a dream. A declared cthulhu is no longer terrible, just like a processed dream. Caves lie beneath caves, abysses beneath abysses, architecture consists of unknown geometry that runs counter to the laws of nature, just as people experience in their dreams every night.

Fantastic realism

Lovecraft's fantastic realism, like the boundary between dream and wakefulness, is the collision of two worlds, a normal and a fantastic. The highlight with him is that the fantastic world is the real one.

This other world is hidden behind the normal world and it is horrible. Dreams, sleepwalking, confused speech in sleep, changes in space and time, for example, build up horror in "Dreams in the witch house". These two worlds are also expressed in the fact that modern scientists are confronted with archaic horrors, witches and monsters.

Regression of the reader

This means that the writer forces his readers back from modern technical thinking to the oldest patterns of psyche, childhood and dream symbols. The myth, the plastic representation of the unconscious, permeates science at Lovecraft. It could also be dreams of scientists of his time, evolutionary animal species, hypotheses about fourth dimensions, the possibility of living on other planets.

New myths, old subconscious

The author creates a line between new myths and the old unconscious. Ultimately, the “old gods” are not only hostile to humans, they are also completely amoral, like horror images in dreams. Lovecraft's contribution to the fantastic literature is that he revived the ancient patterns of the unconscious in the technical age. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Felix Krämer (ed.): Black Romanticism. From Goya to Max Ernst (exhibition catalog). Frankfurt am Main 2012.

Author and source information

Video: The art of literary translation. Natasha Sondakh. TEDxJIS (August 2022).