Culture and J W Dunne

The record

Over recent years I have been compiling a list of documents referencing Dunne. Setting aside those written by him, to date (April 2023) it approaches 500, most of which are published works. That averages out at around five each year. Since the appearance of his own first book in 1924, somebody somewhere has referenced him in one way or another, in every year except for perhaps three. I have no entries for 1960, 1963 or 1994. These absences may well reduce further as time goes by. The steady flow faded a little through the postwar years, but revived again around 1980. Today, in the new millennium, it is as strong as ever.

Dreams and Serialism

Most of the focus is on his dreams and Serialism. It has to be admitted that a steady trickle of those entries are trivial namechecks. Indeed there seems to be quite a little industry namechecking him in order to diss precognitive dreams and/or Serialism in a snappy one-liner, before moving swiftly on. Once the phenomenon rises to one's attention, the monotony begins to become tedious. It too continues as strong as ever. I have largely given up noting such trivia because they begin to clutter up my otherwise useful list; the industry is greater than my numbers suggest. He has evidently struck a deep nerve among the atheistic materialists of this world, a nerve which jangles to this day and will not be calmed. Precognitive dreams are still a cultural force to be reckoned with, and Dunne remains their greatest prophet. I try to fathom a little of what is going on in Dunne Dreams – Science or Pseudoscience?.

An equally significant body of comment comes in the form of academic studies into serialism's literary influence. Although much discussed, his contemporary literary admirers through the 1930s were relatively few. His influence on the storytellers did not really get into its stride until the 1940s, fading away again in the 1980s. Nowadays, commentary on them outweighs his actual appearances. Literary and academic studies focus almost exclusively on literary fiction in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s, with Nabokov's Ada of 1969 being perhaps the last to which any attention is paid. But the body of imaginative fiction from the 1940s through to the 1980s which references him, especially fantasy and science fiction, is greater and overall more widely read by the general public; it is a study waiting to be written.

Of special note is his relationship with JB Priestley, which extended across both fact and fiction. His influence on Priestley's "Time plays" is well known, and Priestley discussed him extensively in his philosophical study on Man and Time. They became friends and Priestley was able to influence his theory of Serialism for the better. Priestley discussed him further in several autobiographical works; Midnight on the Desert, Rain upon Godshill and Over the Long High Wall. One way and another, their relationship feeds a good deal of ongoing comment.

In all this literary activity, Dunne unfortunately tends to eclipse some of his contemporary thinkers. For example P D Ouspensky developed a circular or spiralling model of Time in which history repeats itself, with variations. This too is a popular theme in imnaginative fiction, however authors and commentators will often ascribe it to Dunne and not recognise its true originator. For example Priestley is clear about its origins when he discusses his time plays but his commentators can be less observant. Nellie Kirkham uses the device in Unrest of their Time, but mistakenly ascribes it to Dunne. Fans of Dunne often complain about his obscurity as far as the mainstream are concerned, but he still manages to upstage poor Ouspensky!

Other topics

Dunne's aeronautics and his dry flies maintain a far slower but still steady drip of attention. His military career and political dabblings very rarely awake some historian or other from their indifference.

The aeronautical record is particularly infested with myths, muddles, prejudices and ignorance. Besides the general aerodynamic ignorance and ill-informed comment of the day, his aircraft still tend to be mentionied solely in order to diss them in passing; another community of sensitive nerves, it seems. Elsewhere I attempt to unravel the truth about the technicalities. This is not helped by successive generations of historians having found so little that they understand, that they have felt forced to fill in the blanks with their own speculations. Each new generation takes that speculation as gospel truth and elaborates it further. Dunne himself added to the muddy waters during WWII when he secretly returned to aeronautics, writing to the leading journals and asking them to pass him off as an outdated old has-been so that nobody would suspect the truth. It is a cautionary lesson for all historians; go back to the primary source and ask; who wrote it, what circumstances surrounded them, and what was their motive behind it? Another page here touches on some of the worst Aeronautical Myths and Muddles.

Dunne has been hailed as "one of the fly-fishing greats", "one of the prophets of old." However any fly-fisherman will tell you that there are more views on any given angling topic than there are anglers. The written record as a whole, such as it is, unsurprisingly reflects this. Dry-fly fishing is something of a minority sport, so that record is sparse. I have compiled a small list of the more intriguing Fly Fishing trivia that I have come across.

Updated 3 Oct 2023