Visions are a complex interchange of sight, imagination, and interpretation, in which a particular object will appear to the character (in a dream, reality, or daydream) to suggest a particular message. The trouble with visions usually centers around their unknown origins and inefficiency as a mode of communication. Does the person receiving this vision have reason to trust it, and the abilities necessary to correctly discern its meaning? For this reason, a vision is an odd choice for an author to include in a story, because it has the potential to introduce information, but also the potential to create confusion.
The Catholic church has canonized many saints who experienced visions, including such famous cases as Hildegarde Von Bingen and Joan of Arc. Before they are saints, however, the recipients tend to be faced with a degree of skepticism. The story of Saint Bernadette might be useful for scholars of the Gothic Revival; Bernadette saw her first vision at Lourdes in 1858. The 14-year-old daughter of an impoverished miller, she was gathering wood when a figure in a grotto appeared to her. Returning to that spot more than a dozen times, Bernadette received instructions from the figure, who identified herself as the 'immaculate conception' and revealed a hidden spring with mystical healing capabilities. Bernadette was questioned by the authorities of the government and the church, her embarrassed parents attempted to stop her from returning to the grotto, and her own parish priest doubted the veracity of her claims. Although she caused a sensation among the townspeople of Lourdes, opinions were divided: some people began to follow her to the grotto, while others thought she should be sent to an asylum. Bernadette had been instructed by the vision to build a church on the site, but withdrew to a convent before it was complete. After her death, the church approved her visions, and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (Gothic Revival style) was completed above the grotto in which the visions had appeared.
The pattern of skepticism faced by St. Bernadette is not uncommon for the recipients of visions. With the invention of modern psychology and psychoanalysis, a new layer of doubt was cast upon the vision as a communique from an external source. As an understanding of the subconscious emerged, Sigmund Freud's ideas about dream analysis (Interpretation of Dreams, 1900) were also applied to daydreams and visions of all kinds. Freud himself, however, evinced changing attitudes toward religious visionaries. In 1911, he seemed skeptical, writing, " Think how common hallucinations of the Virgin Mary were in peasant-girls in former times. So long as such a phenomenon brought a flock of believers and resulted perhaps in a chapel being built on the sacred spot, the visionary states of these maidens were inaccessible to influence. Today even the priesthood has changed its attitude to such things; it allows police and medical men to visit the seer, and since then the Virgin appears very seldom." Twenty years later, however, Freud suggests he had a different view of religious visions when he wrote, “I do not think our cures can compete with those at Lourdes. There are so many more people who believe in the miracle of the Blessed Virgin than in the existence of the unconscious.” It's possible, but unlikely that Freud was unaware that the miraculous cures at Lourdes were the result of the visions of a teenage girl.
If visions do not come from the unconscious, and do not come from the divine, what is another possible source? Matthew Lewis' The Monk(1796) suggests they can be demonic in origin. In The Monk the corruption of Ambrosio begins in a series of visions, which seem to come from his imagination: "When He remembered the Enthusiasm which his discourse had excited, his heart swelled with rapture, and his imagination presented him with splendid visions of aggrandizement. He looked round him with exultation, and Pride told him loudly that He was superior to the rest of his fellow-Creatures." Soon after, Ambrosio has visions in his dreams, muddling Matilda and the Virgin Mary together into half-realized sexual fantasies; again, Lewis suggests these images were presented by Ambrosio's imagination.
Elvira, who is the sole protector of the heroine Antonia, is warned of Ambrosio's attempt to rape her daughter in a vision. "A frightful dream had represented to her Antonia on the verge of a precipice. She saw her trembling on the brink: Every moment seemed to threaten her fall, and She heard her exclaim with shrieks, 'Save me, Mother! Save me!—Yet a moment, and it will be too late!' Elvira woke in terror. The vision had made too strong an impression upon her mind, to permit her resting till assured of her Daughter's safety. She hastily started from her Bed, threw on a loose night-gown, and passing through the Closet in which slept the Waiting-woman, She reached Antonia's chamber just in time to rescue her from the grasp of the Ravisher. " In this case, Lewis does not propose a source of the vision, allowing the reader to judge.
At the end of the novel, however, Lucifer gives a prolonged speech revealing that he has the power to send visions. He explicitly takes credit for giving Elvira the vision that led to her death at Ambrosio's hands, and which suggests Lucifer may also have been responsible for Ambrosio's visions, too. It is left to the reader to decide if Ambrosio would have such wicked dreams of his own so early in his fall from grace, or if they were sent as part of the process of his corruption by the devil.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also:workings of the mind
Freud, Sigmund, et al. Collected Papers [by] Sigmund Freud. New York, Basic Books, 1959. Print.
Taylor, Thérèse. Bernadette of Lourdes : Her Life, Death and Visions. London ; New York : Burns & Oates, 2003. Print.
Vitz, Paul C. Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious. New York : Guilford Press, 1988. Print.
The Monkish Mysteries; or, the Miraculous Escape: Containing the History and Villainies of the Monk Bertrand, the Detection of His Impious Frauds, and Subsequent Repentance and Retribution., Elizabeth Meeke