Dream-Thinking

As Sigmund Freud taught us, dreaming is a distinct species of thinking. He wrote voluminously on the subject but offered one of his clearest statements on the matter in a footnote added to The Interpretation of Dreams in 1925: “At bottom,” he says, “dreams are nothing more than a particular form of thinking made possible by the condition of the state of sleep.”1 Dreams think, Freud insists, even if this unconscious mode of thought bears little affinity to the more familiar forms of conscious reasoning.

More precisely, Freud proposed that the dreamer experiences her thoughts rather than “thinks” them in concepts. Dreams dramatize an idea, constructing a situation out of thoughts that have been transposed into images.2 And although the particular scenes and actions of dream-life might seem utterly alien to waking thought, they nevertheless arise out of incidents of our lived experience. Dream-life is anchored in the material world, tethered to the particular conflicts and conditions of the dreamer’s social situation. These thought-events are a “science of the concrete,” to borrow Claude Lévi-Strauss’s term, a kind of mental bricolage: a particular form of thinking that reuses and recombines bits and pieces of material from the dreamer’s diurnal perceptions and the vast storehouse of memory traces.3

The various locations mentioned in Mandela’s dream can certainly be traced back to sites of his lived experience: the jail in Johannesburg where he spent time as an awaiting-trial prisoner in 1962, prior to the Rivonia Trial, but also the first home he owned, the little red brick house, number 8115 in Orlando West, a place Mandela once called the “center point” of his world, “the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”4 This modest building has subsequently taken on another layer of significance since, in 1999, it was rebuilt and transformed into a museum that now receives thousands of visitors each year. The nightmare also manages to index the tiny cell on Robben Island in which Mandela spent the majority of his sentence, albeit only through a negation: the dream-prison “was not Robben Island,” he insists. Such cancellations are a telltale sign of repression, a signal that something is being withheld from consciousness because of the pain that would come with its acknowledgment.5

While dream-life relies on elements of the dreamer’s storehouse of experience to weave its landscapes, this is undoubtedly a queer kind of thinking. These uncanny mental events share more than a passing affinity to Franz Kafka’s breathtaking thought-landscapes: “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.”6 The dream landscape, like Kafka’s stories, operates under an unusual set of environmental conditions. Dream-life is not a documentary presentation of events but rather a symbolic account of the dreamer’s lived experience. In Mandela’s case, his dream visually staged the sense of alienation and unfreedom that the prolonged incarceration inflicted: freedom to wander in an empty, uninhabited world is, of course, no freedom at all. Far from being a straightforward fantasy of escape, the nightmare achingly dramatized what a life separated from one’s loved ones felt like for the dreamer. It also testified to the experience of being ostracized from the larger political community of humanity, showing what it means to be denied that primary dimension of the human condition that involves belonging to a shared gaze—to see and to be seen to exist.7

In Freud’s time, just as now, the idea of treating dream-life as an object of study—as a particular form of thinking—was considered an outrageous leap. As Freud points out in the opening pages of his Interpretation of Dreams, the perplexity this nocturnal phenomenon presented to scientific reasoning is so generally admitted in the literature that “it seems unnecessary to quote instances in support of it.”8 Freud’s theory of interpretation posed a direct challenge to the logic of the sciences of his day. (This challenge remains just as potent today, in our own era, which is dominated by cognitive models of brain functioning.) By insisting that these seemingly nonsensical psychological events contain meaning and, moreover, that their strange logic is a deliberate attempt to thwart rationality, Freud generated a powerful critique of Enlightenment reasoning.9 In wrestling with the force of the unconscious, he dared to stray beyond the borders of rational thought and yet refused to jettison meaning from this territory. Or as Jacqueline Rose has more elegantly phrased it, “psychoanalysis starts from the premise that we are freighted with a form of knowledge we cannot bear.”10 Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.

Freud was not alone in his exploration of the territory that lies beyond the gates of rationality. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a variety of political thinkers began to notice the cracks in the bedrock of reason that had once served as the privileged foundation of political thought. Some of these theorists diagnosed the Enlightenment itself as a disturbed form of thinking and began searching for alternatives. In the preface to her collection of essays Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt offers a terse account of this landscape of postwar critique. Having barely escaped the Nazis’ genocidal designs, Arendt knew all too well how political terror could be unleashed in the voice of reason. She notes that the French intellectuals who joined the résistance and who founded existentialism were not the first, nor the last, to have “outbursts of passionate exasperation with reason, thought, and rational discourse.” Such are “the natural reactions of men who know from their own experiences that thought and reality have parted company.”11 But in her characteristically strong-minded way, Arendt dismissed existentialism as representing little more than a form of escapism—an attempt to evade the dilemmas of dark times by retreating into an “unquestioning commitment to action.”12 In her mind, becoming an engagée was no solution for the profound problems that arise when reason breaks with reality.

For the latter half of her life, Arendt searched for an elastic form of thinking that could endure the dilemmas of dark times. She wrote at length about the problem of “thoughtlessness,” and yet she never gave up on the activity of thinking. The essays that make up her collection Between Past and Future represent a series of such experiments in thinking otherwise. She subtitled the collection “Eight Exercises in Political Thought.” They are not prescriptions about what to think so much as experiments in how to think. Like many theorists of her generation, Arendt moved away from sweeping philosophical treatises and opted instead to examine aspects of our shared intellectual tradition from the standpoint of subjective experience. She advocated for a kind of thinking that arose out of the “actuality of political incidents.” Her assumption was that “thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guideposts by which to take its bearings.”13

Mandela can be taken as an exemplar of such thinking. Over and over, Madiba demonstrated the kind of “enlarged thought” that the political theorist championed. Arendt borrowed this term from Immanuel Kant (she worked closely with the philosopher’s theory of judgment in her late lectures “Kant’s Political Philosophy”14). For both thinkers, “enlarged thought” is an exemplary mental process by which one imagines the world from the perspective of the other, or, as Kant articulated it, “to think from the standpoint of everyone else.”15 The philosopher situated this activity as one of the maxims for a common human understanding, and Arendt extended this line of thinking to argue that this specific mental process was integral to our collective political reality—an indispensable exercise of imagination that actually creates and sustains our common public world.

When the “hope of Africa” sprang through prison’s door in 1994, not only was his “stupendous heart” and “gargantuan will” intact but Mandela had also somehow managed to use his twenty-seven years of imprisonment to grow his capacity to think from the standpoint of others.16 When he took the seat of presidency in a country in which he had previously not been allowed to vote, he personally—and courteously—invited his former prison guards to sit in the front rows of his inauguration. As Rita Barnard has argued, Mandela’s approach to politics borrowed from the genre of the sublime, which is to say, his expansive understanding of freedom exceeded the confines of all the available models that traditionally give shape to this ideal.17 South Africa’s transition to democracy certainly cannot be attributed to one man—and Mandela’s record is not without controversy—but there can be no doubt that his striking capacity to think from the standpoint of others had an integral part to play in the larger transformation of his country. Mandela’s example underscores Arendt’s fundamental insight: that the individual’s ability to think has a profound relationship to the political commons.

Mandela himself provides a brief account of how he came to acquire this enlarged mentality in the closing paragraphs of his autobiography: “I was not born with a hunger to be free,” he writes, although as a boy he felt free—free to run in the fields, swim in the streams, roast mealies, and ride the broad backs of the bulls in his village. It was only as a young man that he began to understand that his boyhood freedom was an illusion, and it was then that his gnawing hunger began. As a student, and then as a barrister in Johannesburg, he yearned for the freedom not to be obstructed in earning a living wage, to marry and raise a family, to live a lawful life. But he found that achieving these goals did not satisfy his hunger: “I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did.” Joining the ANC helped him understand that his hunger was indivisible from the freedom of his people to live with dignity: “the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”

Such narratives of disillusionment are familiar enough as the makings of a freedom fighter. But Mandela’s thought had more maturing to do. The long and lonely years in prison transformed his hunger for his people’s freedom into a hunger for the freedom of all people:

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. . . . The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.18

In these stirring closing passages, one can hear echoes of a universal humanism that stretches from the eighteenth-century revolutions through to the United Nations’s Declaration of Human Rights. There are also deep reverberations that come from years of anticolonial struggle and the wellspring of ubuntu, an African-born philosophy that attends to the obligations of kinship and advocates a model of humanity-in-reciprocity: the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others. Mandela’s ability to borrow from a startlingly wide range of political traditions makes him one of the exemplars of enlarged thought. He gave birth to an indivisible notion of freedom, which, aside from transforming him into a global icon for human rights, can serve as a model for Arendt’s signature claim that “the raison d’être of politics is freedom.”19

I am aware that I have taken us on a detour away from the particulars of Mandela’s nightmare. The point of this diversion was not only to make a case for Madiba’s significance as an exemplary political thinker of the twentieth century but also to show that some of the most potent and transformative forms of political thought do not depend on rationality. In dark times, another form of thinking is needed.

Mandela’s dream bears the scars of such a climate. A recurring nightmare is a particular form of thinking that operates under the pressure of fear. The dreams that leave us crying out in the dark demand a special kind of psychological work. In Wilfred Bion’s terms, these frightening mental events are the psyche’s attempt to digest a particularly difficult emotional experience. The dream subjects the dreamer’s emotional pain to a specific form of unconscious work that is designed to issue in psychological growth.20

Put more simply, nightmares call for courage. And as Hannah Arendt noted, courage is cardinal among the political virtues.21 This attribute is what enables and emboldens us to leave the protective confines of our homes and to enter the public realm. Mandela’s example reminds us that courage does not come without its share of anguish. The recurring nightmare is one example of its psychic cost, but Madiba’s autobiography is filled with descriptions of the excruciating divide that he felt between the obligations of family life and the obligations of public life. (In the closing pages, one can find the final wrenching account: “It was as simple and yet as incomprehensible as the moment when a small child asks her father, ‘Why can you not be with us?’ And the father must utter the terrible words, ‘There are other children like you, a great many of them . . .’ and then one’s voice trails off.”22) Mandela spent the better part of his lifetime digesting this difficult knowledge: in dark times, it is not only individual lives at stake but the larger human world.

From this fraught climate, the significance of dream-life can perhaps begin to stand out. To transpose Arendt’s terms into a Freudian key: dreaming is an integral exercise of thought, an alternative landscape built out of incidents of living experience and a prime model of our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world. Without relying on the banisters of existent concepts, dream-thinking manages to dramatize and metabolize our most profound conflicts, geolocating the moorings of our subjectivity within the gossamer web of social relations, all without losing an inch in the riches, varieties, and dramatic elements that are so characteristic of “real” life.

The chapters that follow elaborate this central premise, echoing and deepening the idea that dream-thinking is integral to the political realm. Each of the chapters pursues an interrelated idea: (1) dream-work as a model of civil defense, (2) narrating a dream as a discourse that acts, and (3) dreaming as a practice of freedom.

The guiding principle that animates these explorations is borrowed from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who, at the close of the Second World War, offered this wise counsel: “Thinking is but a snare and a delusion unless the unconscious is taken into account.”23