Sharon Sliwinski stumbled across Nelson Mandela’s dream by accident.
“I still vividly remember coming across the passage in his book in which he describes a recurring nightmare that he had while he was imprisoned on Robben Island,” said the Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor, who bought Mandela’s autobiography – back on shelves just after his death – while stuck at an airport.
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.
“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,” said Sliwinski, who explores dreams in part of her forthcoming book, Dream Matters: Six Exercises in Political Thought.
Sliwinski suggested 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. But he also was not allowed to speak publicly or even be quoted publicly. Indeed, even his photograph was forbidden from being circulated,” she said. “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 are courage and cunning made from? I still don’t have good answers to those questions, but I began 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 said.
Dream Matters is about dreams, like Mandela’s, and their significance for our political lives.
“Dreams are carriers of unconscious knowledge – information we don’t quite possess, but which can be profoundly important for our psychological and political well-being,” Sliwinski explained. “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, as part of the 2015-16 FIMS #PublicInterest lecture series, Sliwinski presented her research in a talk, 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 said.
“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.”
Sliwinski stresses 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.”
In December, Sliwinski received an internal research grant as start-up funding for her Museum of Dreams 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 said.
Her goal is 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, that object is 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 the importance of dream-life rather than explain it.”