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Red Uncle, Red Canyon

Two dreams, c. 1906 and c. 1925, by J.B. Priestley


The first dream occurred nearly 60 years ago. In it I saw very clearly, glaring at me out of a vague darkness, the angry face of one of my uncles. I saw very little of this particular uncle in waking life, and that was the only time I ever dreamed about him. He had lightish grey-blue and rather prominent eyes, very suitable for a kind of cold glaring, and, still a child, I was terrified by them in this dream, which was almost a nightmare. I had never seen him even mildly cross in waking life, and did not associate him with displays of bad temper. But now he looked half-mad with rage, as he glared at me across a distance of some yards. He neither spoke nor moved; but then I soon woke up, still feeling terrified.

Many years later, in the middle of the First World War, I was home on leave, and, waiting for the later performance, the "second house," of a music hall to begin, I was having a drink in a rather crowded bar. Suddenly I felt, as one often does, that somebody was staring at me, and looking down the bar I saw this same uncle, whom I had not seen for some years, and he was glaring at me exactly as he had done in that old dream. For a moment, though I was now grownup and a soldier, I felt that same childish terror. Then he came across--he had had a few drinks--and began to reproach me angrily about something that was actually no fault of mine. I did not tell him that he had begun his half-mad glaring years and years before, in a dream.


The second dream belongs to the middle 1920s. I found myself sitting in the front row of a balcony or gallery in some colossal vague theatre that I never took in properly. On what I assumed to be the stage, equally vast and without any definite proscenium arch, was a brilliantly colored and fantastic spectacle, quite motionless, quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was an unusually impressive dream, which haunted me for weeks afterward.

Then in the earlier 1930s I paid my first visit to the Grand Canyon, arriving in the early morning when there was a thick mist and nothing to be seen. I sat for some time close to the railing on the South Rim, in front of the hotel there, waiting for the mist to thin out and lift. Suddenly it did, and then I saw, as if I were sitting in the front row of a balcony, that brilliantly colored and fantastic spectacle, quite motionless, that I had seen in my dream theatre. My recognition of it was immediate and complete. My dream of years before had shown me a preview of my first sight of the Grand Canyon.


Both these dreams seem to me definitely precognitive or previsionary. Now let us see how they stand up to the anti-precognitive criticism that I outlined earlier [Priestley listed simple coincidence, the hunger for magic and/or to be special, deja vu and similar biochemical oddities, cryptomnesia or buried memories, and action to make the future fit a prediction].

The Canyon dream occurred before I had read Dunne [An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne], and even when I saw the Canyon I was not yet interested in the Time problem. And the uncle dream and its waking experience happened many years before I knew anything about precognitive dreams. In neither waking event was there merely a vague feeling of having seen something before: There was instant and definite recognition, and in both cases--and this is unusual--there had been a long interval between the dream and event. No suppressed anxieties, no strong emotions, can be found here.

I do not see how I could have manipulated my waking life, even unconsciously, to make these dreams come true. In the Canyon dream I did not know that the apparent stage spectacle was the Grand Canyon. It can be argued that photographs of the Grand Canyon are not uncommon, and that I might have seen one or several of them years before I had my dream. I cannot accept this argument. To begin with, as anybody who has seen the Grand Canyon knows, color is essential to any picture of it, and the kind of color photography familiar enough these days hardly existed in the earlier 1920s; and if I had seen a painting of the Grand Canyon I would certainly not have forgotten it. Then again, there were in both the dream spectacle and the actual sight of the Grand Canyon a shared richness, depth, intricacy, and magnificence, that make any comparisons with vague memories of old photographs seem ridiculous.

So we are left with coincidence. And this is roughly how the argument will run. It is not surprising that a child should have a rather frightening dream about some older relative glaring at him. Nor is it very astonishing that a young man should encounter an angry uncle in a bar. It is not even a remarkable coincidence that the uncle should look more or less as he did in the dream.

Now this sounds reasonable but it is not. To begin with, I was not always dreaming about glaring older relatives, and indeed this dream is the only one I can remember. Then on no other occasion did I encounter an angry uncle (or aunt) in a bar or any other public place. The odds against both these happening--and showing me a face with an identical strange look on it--seem to me very heavy indeed.

Again, turning to the other example, I was not always dreaming about sitting in vast vague theatres and seeing some motionless, multicolored, brilliant, and fantastic spectacle. (The color is important. We seem to create our dreams as we do our films--in black-and-white if that will do; in color if the dream needs color, as this one of mine did.) This dream was so unusual and striking that I easily remembered it. It put me in the front row of some vague theatre balcony because later, when I caught my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, I was in fact sitting close to a railing, a circumstance I would not have reasonably anticipated.

And I ought to add here that at the time I had this dream, I had no plans for visiting America and had never given a thought to seeing the Grand Canyon. In fact, when I did go to America and crossed to the Pacific Ocean by rail, I saw the Grand Canyon as the result of a last-minute decision to take advantage of a convenient "stopover" trip there. Later, I paid it several more visits, went down into it, and wrote about it in my Midnight On The Desert. It came to have a great fascination for me, and, in my opinion, this explains why I had this precognitive dream.

Earlier, when I stated the case for the other side, I think I dealt quite fairly with the "coincidence" objection to precognition, making it look as reasonable as possible. But now let us look at it from our side. In the first place, "coincidence" is shaken in our faces as if we had never seen or heard of such a thing before. But we know about coincidences; we have had our share of them; they are nothing new in our lives; and we know they are bound to occur.

We begin to wonder and to ask questions when coincidences no longer look like coincidences, when too many details of dream and event agree, when the odds against chance go soaring, and when the whole tone and feeling of our double experience seem to be quite different from anything we know in an ordinary encounter with coincidence. There is a point past which coincidences turn into something else, compelling us to demand an explanation, just as there is a point past which scientific detachment can turn into bull-headed prejudice.

The people who will tell me it is all coincidence did not see my uncle's face as I did, did not see that theatre spectacle in the dream and then that first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. And without knowing themselves the peculiar tone and tang of these experiences and their strange thrills of recognition, they are like tone-deaf men arguing that string quartets have little effect upon us.

--J.B. Priestley

SOURCE: J.B. Priestley, Man and Time, 1964, pp 197-200

Uncle: anger - family and relatives - fairness and injustice -
Canyon: theatre and drama - landscapes - color and light - Grand Canyon, Arizona -
Predictive or not?: predictive dreams - long-term predictions - psychic dreams in general - ESP as an issue - dreamwork and research - J.B. Priestley

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