Dream Matters

The significance of dream-life has been slowly eroded throughout modernity. It is as if, in some strange way, this era’s potent fantasies of rationalization, technological progress, and perfectibility have claimed center stage, displacing the older image of the human being as a small, frangible creature that sleeps and dreams.

But dream we do. And Mandela’s example reminds us of the significance of attending to this alternative thought-landscape—especially in dark times. There was little that was secret about the institution of apartheid in South Africa. Yet, paradoxically, this methodical form of political violence was by no means visible to all, nor was it easy to perceive. This is because in such eras, violence is camouflaged by “the highly efficient talk and double-talk” of official representatives, who, “in many ingenious variations, explain away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.”1 Dark times are moments when political violence occurs in full view of the public realm, indeed, moments when this sphere of appearances is itself infected by a kind of black light. In these unyielding climates, language is no longer used to disclose and expose but to obfuscate and hide what is. In dark times, under the pretext of upholding old truths, a kind of official language emerges, a vehicle that is designed to degrade truth, to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege, to stall conscience and thwart our capacity to think.

As Madiba taught us, dream-life becomes a particularly potent resource in such climates. The disclosure of his recurring nightmare quietly assures us that dream-life matters—it matters both for the individual and for our shared political lives. These uncanny mental events are vehicles for otherwise unthinkable thoughts and a wellspring for the freedom of speech. Dreaming is an indispensable species of psychological work that can help transfigure the force of a harsh reality. These thought-events are one of the principal means of transport for a unique form of knowledge that each subject carries but that remains vexingly other.

Dreams animate human life; that is their work. As Mandela’s example shows, disclosing these events can become a political exercise that carries great force. In our own dark times, attending to this alternative form of thinking can perhaps help us live through, resist, and ultimately transfigure our shared social and political landscapes otherwise.