Dream-Work as Civil Defense

One of the things that makes dreams infinitely more adventurous, more inventive, and more cunning than daytime thought is the fact that this thought-landscape is not governed by the rules of rationality but rather relies on an alternative mode of mental functioning in which meaning moves more freely. Dreaming is just one example of unconscious thinking, but it was through the extended examination and interpretation of these oneiric events that Freud discovered the structure of this “other” psychological agency.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud distinguished between two separate functions that occur in the formation of a dream, both of which operate unconsciously: (1) the production of the dream-thoughts and (2) the transformation of these thoughts into the manifest content of the dream through the operations of the dream-work.1

Dream-thoughts are the dense web of thoughts and ideas that are latent in a dream but that can be gradually unearthed through the dreamer’s associations, that is, all the memories, thoughts, and images that each element of the dream brings to mind. For the first half of his career, Freud maintained that these dream-thoughts were arranged according to a pleasure principle, hence his oft-cited thesis that a dream is the fulfillment of a repressed wish. This led some analysts to assume that dreams could be distilled to a single desire, but Freud more often than not described dream-thoughts in terms of a dense thicket, as “a complex of thoughts and memories of the most intricate possible structure, with all the attributes of trains of thought familiar to us in waking life.”2

For a time, Freud was preoccupied by these intricate “trains of thought,” which, as he notes, can emerge from more than one center. But as his thinking matured, he realized that the more radical aspect of dream-life was not the unconscious thoughts themselves but the particular way these thoughts are transformed by the dynamic agency of the dream-work. Freud used this latter term as a heading under which he listed four distinct operations of transformation: displacement, condensation, symbolization, and secondary revision.3 I will not attempt to explain each of these complex operations here, but it is important to emphasize the distinction between the dream-work and the dream-thoughts. The dream-work does not generate the dream’s content but rather works to transfigure it. Dream-work is a treatment of experience, in the artistic or chemical sense of the term, a kind of metamorphosis, which, Freud realized, is one of our primary means to give meaning to experience, indeed, an archetype for the freedom of thought. The dream-work, as he put it, “restricts itself to giving things a new form,” and he regularly insisted that “the essence” of dreaming is this psychological work of reformulation.4 In other words, Freud came to realize that the most radical aspect of dream-life was not what these experiences think but how they think.

The significance of this distinction is readily evident in Mandela’s nightmare. As the dreamer himself admits, the nightmare arose from a desperate wish to return home to see his family. This hardly seems surprising for someone facing lifetime imprisonment. Where the dream draws its poignancy and its potency is in how it negotiates this desire, how it dramatizes the experience of being severed from contact with human society. This severing was particularly extreme in the first few years of Mandela’s prison sentence—when he was only allowed to receive one visitor and one letter every six months—but the process of his political isolation began long before his actual incarceration. In 1952, the future president was among a group of leaders who were banned by the Afrikaner government through its Suppression of Communism Act. Although this act specifically targeted Communists, it was worded broadly so as to include “any activity that allegedly promoted social, political, or economic change in South Africa.” The banning aimed, in the short term, to prevent a variety of political figures from attending the national conferences of their respective parties. It was the first of a long series of bans that Mandela faced in the decade prior to his imprisonment.

Being banned in apartheid South Africa meant one’s movements were severely restricted. Mandela was rarely allowed to leave his district of Johannesburg. It also prevented him from attending meetings of all kinds, not just political ones. He was prohibited, for instance, from attending his children’s birthday parties or from speaking to more than one person at a time (both of which he defied the law to do). Banning was a kind of “walking imprisonment,” and the strategy was one of the government’s systematic attempts to immobilize leaders of groups who were resisting apartheid.5 Whereas a government banning a particular political organization is a common enough practice, the National Party’s policy of banning individuals was something unique among modern nations. Not since the Middle Ages had a government openly attempted to formalize this kind of juridical outlawry.6 Apart from physical restrictions, banned persons were forced to resign any offices they held in any organization, and they were prohibited from speaking publicly or from writing for any publication. A banned person could not be quoted publicly, and his photograph was prohibited from being circulated. Shortly before Mandela was due to be released in 1990, Time magazine produced an illustrated portrait of the leader on its cover because no photographs of the freedom fighter were available. No one knew what the man looked like after twenty-seven years of imprisonment.

The example tests the outer edges of what Jenny Edkins calls “face politics.”7 Banned individuals were denied legal safeguards in the event of disappearance or death. In effect, banning represented an organized political attempt to expunge a person from all aspects of social and public life, a gesture that sought to render an individual into a kind of homo sacer—an accursed figure who is deprived of the usual entitlements and protections of human society. Mandela himself described this political act as an impingement of spirit: “Banning not only confines one physically, it imprisons one’s spirit. It induces a kind of psychological claustrophobia that makes one yearn not only for freedom of movement but spiritual escape.”8

Theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, and others have analyzed the structural force of this kind of sovereign violence to great effect, but Mandela’s dream offers a rather different site through which to consider its lived experience.9 My phrasing here is deliberate: “lived experience” is a translation of the German neologism Erlebnis, which has been the subject of a long-standing philosophical debate. The term was coined in an effort to distinguish a particular category of experience that is distinct from the common use of this term (Erfahrung). In contrast to the usual sense of experience, Erlebnis refers to a kind of intensified experience, one that is rooted in feeling rather than an objective or otherwise detached rendering of the event. Mandela’s nightmare, in this respect, offers a direct account of the experience of being banned without recourse to an empirical or philosophical description of this condition: the dream directly expresses the emotional experience of having one’s very personhood scraped away. All dreams are individual accounts of lived experience in this respect—graphic re-presentations that allow for a more intimate grappling with one’s condition.

For the philosophers, lived experience is properly understood as a category of consciousness.10 Dreams, however, are a decidedly unconscious form of thinking. The material that composes the landscape of dream-life is often derived from those aspects of experience that the dreamer has either repressed or not yet emotionally processed. Indeed, part of the dream’s aim is to bring to consciousness this “unthought known,” to metabolize the experience in a way that makes it available as a form of emotional understanding.11 Put differently, dream-thinking works to transform objective occurrences into subjective phenomena. Mandela’s nightmare allowed him to articulate and to work through the emotional impact of his juridical sentence, rendering its impact in his own terms. This is one of our most intimate venues to exercise the freedom of expression.

The agency that performs this transformative labor is the dream-work. More specifically, Mandela’s nightmare relied on symbolization to articulate the emotional significance of his experience of being erased from society. Symbolization (or what Freud initially named “considerations of representability”) renders experience figuratively—presenting an idea or an emotion in pictorial terms. In the nightmare, Johannesburg was devoid of all people, all cars, and Mandela’s home was turned into a ghost house. This empty landscape serves as a dramatic figure of the emotional experience of being banished. Mandela’s experience of being barred from society, and of spending a great portion of his life imprisoned, felt akin to a world emptied of all human presence. In this respect, the nightmare gave form to the violence that imprisonment enacts, and more specifically, the violence that apartheid enacts: it figuratively conveyed the pain of depriving a human being access to the human world. For those it targets, apartheid transforms the world into a ghost town.

In more intimate terms, the dream-work’s symbolic elaborations serve as a protective shield against attacks on our being—whether biological or psychological traumas or social and political forms of aggression. As Arendt helps us to understand, political violence does not simply target the body of its subjects; it aims to destroy the subject’s capacity to think. Political violence attacks the mental life of the citizenry. The dream-work’s transfigurations attempt to work through these forms of aggression. The symbolic elaborations aim to preserve our mental agency, in part by generating what Didier Anzieu describes as a “psychic envelope,” a secondary, protective skin for thought.12 Mandela’s recurring dream opened an interior landscape in which he had space to think about the terms of his political condition rather than be directly equated with it. The operations of dream-work helped shield and sustain his sense of self by enabling him to turn his political condition into a figure of thought. Or to use Mandela’s own terms, this alternative mode of thinking helped him defend himself against that dimension of political violence that aimed to imprison his spirit. Dream-life, in this respect, can be understood as a primal form of resistance, indeed, as our most intimate model of civil defense. Freud famously described dreams as the guardians of sleep, but they are much more than that—these night watchmen preserve our psychic functioning, guard over our capacity to think, and, in so doing, shield us against the world’s impingements.

A caveat: dreams do not automatically issue in psychological growth. As several clinicians have shown, many psychological events occur in sleep that greatly resemble dreaming but involve no unconscious psychological work; these events possess nothing of the labor of dream-thinking. Hanna Segal, for instance, describes patients whose dreams simply serve to evacuate unwanted emotions or ideas.13 Analysts often distinguish, in this respect, between different degrees of symbol formation. The capacity to form and use symbols depends on one’s relationship to unconscious fantasy, which is to say, the degree and nature of the communication that one has with one’s internal objects. To cast this in Arendt’s terms, one’s capacity to think depends on one’s willingness to establish a dialogue with oneself. It is a testament to Mandela’s great strength of mind that he was able to use the solitude that prison imposed to engage, as he put it, in “conversations with myself.”14