A Discourse That Acts

Although easily overlooked, the disclosure of any dream relies on a fundamental act of translation: the conversion of the dream that is dreamed in images into the dream that is articulated in words. Dreaming is first and foremost an experience that takes place on an unconscious plane, usually under the cover of sleep. Narrating a dream is a secondary act of translation that occurs at some later point—presuming that one has managed to smuggle the dream through that delicate border between sleep and awakening.

Freud was attentive to the way dream-thoughts are transformed into verbal expressions. His interpretations tend to focus on the ambiguity of language. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he frequently traces the various connotative nodes that issue from a single word in the dream-text.1 However, it was one of Freud’s contemporaries, Sándor Ferenczi, who first drew attention to the larger distinction between the experience of dreaming and the gesture of disclosing this experience to another person. Ferenczi was a Hungarian analyst in Freud’s inner circle, and he became particularly attuned to the way people relayed their dreams. In 1912, he wrote that dreamers often feel impelled to convey their dreams “to the very person to whom the content relates.”2 This observation opened the door to a new understanding of dream-life as a special kind of communication between subjects. Whereas the activity of dreaming is a dialogue that one has with oneself, in the disclosure of this experience, a dream becomes a form of communication with another person—an unconscious avowal that involves both a sender and an addressee. In this way, reporting a dream is simultaneously a kind of publication of the dream-work and an action that moves the dream into another venue. Here dreaming becomes a speech act.

In clinical terms, dreaming represents an intra-psychic form of dialogue that takes place within the realm of the “dream-space,” whereas the narration of a dream represents an inter-subjective form of communication that occurs between the dreamer and her interlocutor.3 Contemporary clinicians are particularly attuned to the way patients communicate their dreams to the analyst. They take note, for instance, of the difference between a patient who reluctantly reports “I had a dream last night but only scraps of it are left . . .” and a patient who eagerly expounds upon every detail of the previous night’s adventures. The style in which one communicates a dream indicates a variety of things, including the relationship the dreamer has with her own dream-thinking, which is conveyed in the particular way she gives this object over to a third party for examination—or, conversely, the way she withholds it.4

Not surprisingly, debate has ensued about the significance of this distinction between the act of dreaming and reporting the experience to another person. Is dreaming an experience that is designed to protect the privacy of the self? What, exactly, is being disclosed when one conveys a dream? How can reporting one’s dream expose or perhaps even betray the self? Freud grappled with some of these questions early on. In the preface to the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, he explicitly asked his readers to grant him “the right of freedom of thought—in my dream-life, if nowhere else.”5 The entreaty refers to the fact that Freud had used his own dreams (as well as those of his patients) as the key source material for the book. This put him in something of a tight spot. As he acknowledges, “it inevitably followed that I should have to reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet.” Here Freud is defending his unusual method and his unorthodox data. The preface closes with the plea to his readers to accept this situation and that if anyone finds any sort of reference to himself in the book, “grant me the right of freedom of thought—in my dream-life, if nowhere else.”

Freud’s concerns about public exposure spawn further questions when the dream under scrutiny belongs to the world’s most famous political prisoner: what does it mean for Mandela to reveal the intimacies of his mental life to the public gaze? What does dream-life have to do with his capacity for the freedom of thought? And what does the freedom of thought have to do with the freedom of speech? What does it mean to speak of freedom? And how does one come to be free to speak of it?

These fundamental questions about the relationship between dreaming and freedom have a particular vector in the psychoanalytic clinic. In a trilogy of papers published between 1962 and 1976, the British-based psychoanalyst Masud Khan sought to find ways to return the experience of dreaming to the dreamer.6 Khan came to believe that the role of the analyst should primarily be to help establish and support the patient’s dreaming capacity, that is, to help patients gain more freedom in their symbolic functioning. Drawing from his clinical practice, Khan argued that patients who were unable to establish and effectively use the dream-space tended to exploit external reality as a venue to act out their unconscious conflicts and fantasies. A dream that enables an “actualization in the dream-space,” Khan proposed, curtails “acting out in social-space.”7 By the end of his career, Khan had begun to view the distinction between the dreaming experience and the disclosure of a dream as a decisive one. In his last paper on the subject, he went so far as to describe the communication of the dream as a negation of the experience of dreaming: “Dreaming itself,” he declared, “is beyond interpretation.”8

Khan’s close colleague, the French analyst J.-B. Pontalis, echoed some of these concerns and strongly disagreed with others. Pontalis admitted, “In a sense, psychoanalysis strangles the eloquence of dream life.”9 But he took issue with Khan’s move to privilege the dream experience at the expense of communicating the dream. Pontalis felt that attempts to cloister dream-life in the private, inner domain of the self deprive this experience of its primary function: to bring conflicts to the surface. For Pontalis, the act of interpretation is undoubtedly a symbolic wound to the privacy of the dreaming experience, but a wound that works in tandem with the dream-work’s own procedures of substitution and transformation. Psychoanalysis, Pontalis emphasized, is a talking cure—a form of treatment that rests on the principle that the ability to freely speak to another person is integral to the relief of psychic pain.

In a more general sense, almost every parent knows that getting a child to relay a nightmare helps to lessen some of its hallucinatory force. Relief arrives precisely because the dream that is captured in words is something different from the dream as experienced. Translating and transmitting the experience of a nightmare help to absorb the shock of the event. As Pontalis puts it, “the power of speech answers the imaginary power of the dream and takes its place.”10

Dream-life becomes most politically potent in its verbal disclosure. Mandela reported his recurring nightmare in the context of his autobiography and, in so doing, aimed to establish a particular kind of relationship with his readers. (He sent a different iteration of this dream to his wife, Winnie, in a 1976 letter—a gesture that intended to establish a rather different kind of relationship.11) Language is, of course, a system of communication, but it is also an agency—an act that has consequences. Many verbal statements are designed simply to convey information, but as J. L. Austin taught us, some utterances have more concrete effects: a royal decree, a judge’s ruling, an assessor’s appraisal.12 In each of these cases, the speaker uses language as an agency, as a means to perform an action.

As a lawyer and a banned figure, Mandela was well attuned to the performative power of language—and the language of law in particular. Indeed, this intimacy was significant to his political practice. Early on in the freedom fighter’s career, Madiba helped organize a wide-scale resistance movement that took aim at the Afrikaner government’s institution of apartheid laws, the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act chief among them. These laws stripped people of their rights under the guise of preserving them. The ANC’s Defiance Campaign staged demonstrations in which volunteers strategically defied some of these new laws: marching through restricted areas without permits, entering railway stations through the “Europeans Only” entrance, and sitting on benches marked “Vir Blankes” (“For Whites”). The Defiance Campaign necessarily defined human beings as subjects-of-law, that is, as citizens who were being subjected to unfair apartheid policies. Because these laws positioned subjects in unequal ways in relation to the state, a vital part of the liberation struggle involved actively resisting these forms of subjugation.

The political principle behind the Defiance Campaign involves denying the sovereign authority of apartheid laws and creating instead, as Mandela put it, “conditions which will restore human dignity, equality and freedom to every South African.”13 The principle of defying an unjust law lies at the heart of civil disobedience. But from where does the restoration of dignity arrive? From what sovereignty will the disenfranchised claim their franchise, if not from the law? The ANC’s implicit answer (borrowed from Gandhi’s example) is that the indivisible freedom of every South African is held as a thought in the gesture of defiance itself, even if the resources of liberation are not yet available. One might say that such gestures receive their authority from a freedom that is not present but whose existence is nevertheless indexed by the gesture. As the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy suggests, “the thinking of freedom can only be seized, surprised, and taken from elsewhere by the very thing it thinks.”14

Mandela’s nightmare also demonstrates this characteristic “thinking of freedom.” The disclosure exhibits the mechanics of the performative act that lies at the heart of this political wager—the elsewhere from which freedom springs. By its nature, dreaming carries us beyond the borders of the sovereign ego. Indeed, a nightmare is one of the more intimate experiences of being subjected to a foreign agency. This is precisely what makes these events so unsettling: the frightening images and sensations that arrive under the cover of sleep are not within the dreamer’s command but rather arrive unbidden.

Disclosing this experience has a dual performative effect: first, the imaginary operations of the dream-work free up the linguistic structures that traditionally govern our capacity as speaking beings—dreams enable and provoke us to say things that we might feel otherwise unable to say. In this respect, the dream-work’s re-formative power liberates the inhibitions and constraints of rational thought and speech—constraints that are particularly profound in dark times. The activity of dreaming is an exercise of the freedom of thought, and the disclosure of a dream enacts the freedom of speech.

Second, reporting a dream is an avowal of the dreaming experience. By disclosing his nightmare, Mandela testified to his lived experience; he affirmed whom he was by placing himself in a particular relationship to his readers. Speaking with a view to freedom anchors the speaker within the web of human relations. The gesture establishes the structure of the relationship between subjects and sets the terms of political exchange. The intimate nature of Mandela’s disclosure is signal in this respect. In 1994, the same year he was elected president, he made a list in one of his notebooks; the first item: “Personalize political experience.”15

Our common world is borne on the backs of political actors who demonstrate the courage to disclose themselves to one another. By sharing his dream-life, Mandela reaffirmed this fundamental fact: the public sphere is created and sustained through such exercises of freedom.

Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming by Sharon Sliwinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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