Discovering the importance of dreams in psychological and political well-being

Sharon Sliwinski

Photo credit: Chris Rijksen

FIMS Associate Professor Sharon Sliwinski stumbled across one of Nelson Mandela’s dreams by accident. She bought his autobiography – back on shelves just after his death – while stuck at an airport and read it on a long flight. “I still vividly remember coming across the passage in which he describes a recurring nightmare that he had while he was imprisoned on Robben Island,” Sliwinski says.

In his dream, Mandela had just been released from prison, only it was not Robben Island, but a jail in Johannesburg. He walked outside the gates into the city and found no one around to greet him – in fact, there was nobody around at all. Mandela walked for hours and headed toward his home, only to find an empty ghost house, with all the doors and windows open but no one there at all.

“I was so astonished by the dream that I almost woke the person sitting next to me to tell them about it - a complete stranger!” says Sliwinski, who explores these dreams in part of her forthcoming book “Dream Matters: Six Exercises in Political Thought.” The University of Minnesota Press, the book’s publisher, has released a portion of the project as a small book titled “Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming.”

Sliwinski suggests the empty dream-landscape served as a dramatic figure for the emotional experience of being banned in apartheid-era South Africa. “Being banned meant one’s presence was expunged from all aspects of political life. Mandela's movement was restricted, of course, but he also was not allowed to speak publicly or even be quoted publicly - indeed, even his photograph was forbidden from being circulated,” she says. “The nightmare gave form to this radical experience of being expunged from society: it figuratively conveyed the pain of depriving a human being access to the human world.”

After spending years studying some of the worst moments in human history, Sliwinski became intrigued by people’s capacity for psychological resilience. “What enables people to survive dark times? What is courage and cunning made from? I still don’t have good answers to those questions, but I did begin to notice the dreams: people who survive dark times often report having been visited by a significant dream, or actually, more often, a nightmare. You can find this throughout human history, all over the world,” she says.

“Dream Matters” is about dreams like Mandela’s and their significance for our political lives. “The catchphrase, if I can put it that way, is that dreaming is a singularly important species of thinking. Dreams are carriers of unconscious knowledge - information that we don’t quite possess, but which can be profoundly important for our psychological and political well-being,” Sliwinski explains. “The book tries to bring psychoanalysis and political theory into dialogue in order to create a new method for working with these queer objects.”

In November 2015, as part of the 2015-16 FIMS #PublicInterest lecture series, Sliwinski presented her research in a talk titled “Dreaming in Dark Times,” which explored the way dream-life can be understood both as a private experience and social text, drawing on Mandela’s recurring nightmares.

People are quite curious about dream-life and have an appetite to talk about it, Sliwinski observes. “I can’t tell you how often strangers will talk intimately about their dreams once they’ve learned about my research…I think this is partly because we live in an era that is highly - some would say overly - rationalized. People are deeply affected by their dreams but they have no idea what to do with these experiences - in part because they don’t operate according to the laws of rational thought.”

The experience of the lecture was nerve-wracking, says Sliwinski. “I’m still learning how to wear the hat of the public intellectual. It’s not easy to translate highly specialized research into terms that will hold the attention of the general public.”

One key take-away Sliwinski cites is that dream-life matters. “Pay attention to your own dreams and to the dreams of others. These strange events are often carriers of information that we cannot bear to think about otherwise. Dreams offer a vital landscape to recover our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world; they are a crucial resource for maintaining a measure of freedom in our thought and speech - especially in dark times. Indeed, as I hope my book shows, dream-life can serve as one of our most intimate modes of civil resistance.”

In December 2015, Sliwinski received an internal research grant as start-up funding for her Museum of Dream project – a virtual museum whose “collections” will include dream reports taken from the historical record. “In my experience, dreams are rather difficult objects to find,” she says, “so the goal here is to make to make a searchable index of historical dreams. For example, First World War poet Wilfred Owen documents a recurring nightmare in one of his famous poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Museum will index such dreams and include a virtual link to the “object”; in the case of Owen’s poem, a manuscript held by the University of Oxford’s English department.

Sliwinski says the Museum will also feature short multimedia stories about the significance of these dreams. “In a sense, the goal is to translate and expand the research that I did for the book into a publicly accessible forum - to show the importance of dream-life rather than explain it.”