Mandela’s dreams

Media studies scholar Sharon Sliwinski asks whether dreaming can be recast as a vital form of resistance to political violence. A review of her book.

Mandela statue at Southbank Centre in London. Image credit Paul Simpson via Flickr.

In Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming, Sharon Sliwinski contemplates the ways in which freedom fighter and later South Africa’s first democratic President, Nelson Mandela’s dream-life left an impression on his waking politics. In positing dreams as a form of thinking in “dark times,” Sliwinski takes Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as a point of departure. Freud famously interpreted dreams as wish fulfillments. Ultimately, dreams, for Freud, satisfy the wish to sleep, insofar as they provide hallucinatory gratification of the wishes that would disturb us, wake us up. It is in this sense that Freud calls dreams the guardians of sleep. The Freudian “royal road” has been used by numerous postcolonial critics. The novelty of Sliwinski’s intervention is to put Freud, and a post-Freudian school of thought for which dreams are the guardians not of sleep but of thought, into dialogue with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment via Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy.

Sliwinski’s filtering of psychoanalysis through Arendt allows for a rereading of Freud that walks a path between learning from his vacillating analytic rhythm and following compliantly in his footsteps. It is a kind of fidelity to Freud that can come only from a betrayal of the letter of psychoanalysis properly psychoanalytic in spirit. Sliwinski does theory rather than applies it, allows it to emerge by bringing different texts into an encounter. To her great credit, Mandela emerges here not so much an object of analysis as a philosophical accomplice in forging what Sliwinski calls, in her subtitle, A Political Theory of Dreaming.

One of Sliwinski’s central claims is that Mandela demonstrated in his political thought what Kant calls, in the Critique of Judgment, “enlarged thought,” a process, as Kant formulates it, integral to the capacity for judgment that transcends “subjective private conditions.” One of Mandela’s key political contributions to the world, Sliwinski suggests, was to imagine it from beyond the cell of his own subjectivity. And for Sliwinski, Mandela’s dream-life is not unrelated to this capacity. Alongside this claim, Sliwinski invokes Mandela’s politics of the sublime. It is not the first time the claim has been made. Rita Barnard does much the same in the Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela. The sublime bears, of course, like enlarged thought, the stamp of Kant.

To posit Mandela as an exemplar of enlarged thought and sublimity, of Enlightenment, is far from straightforward. There is nothing especially unusual in scholars utilizing Enlightenment concepts in the critique of apartheid. However, Kant’s Eurocentrism, if not outright racism, is no secret, and these are not mere passing remarks, as many scholars have noted, but integral to his critical philosophy. Sliwinski’s wager, then, is considerable.

There were, as Sliwinski notes, severe restrictions placed on prisoners at Robben Island, who were permitted a single visitor every six months. If a letter can, indeed, always not arrive at its destination, this assumed a very literal meaning on Robben Island, and if a letter did arrive, it was always highly censored—Mandela’s prison letters are filled with such complaints.

It was under such conditions that Mandela endured the passing of his mother and his eldest son. It was also under such conditions that he dreamed variations of the following, repeatedly:

In the dream, I had just been released from prison—only it was not Robben Island, but a jail in Johannesburg. I walked outside the gates into the city and found no one there to meet me. In fact, there was no one there at all, no people, no cars, no taxis. I would then set out on foot toward Soweto. I walked for many hours before arriving in Orlando West, and then turned the corner toward 8115. Finally, I would see my home, but it turned out to be empty, a ghost house, with all the doors and windows open, but no one at all there (Mandela cited in Sliwinski).

Sliwinski takes this particular nightmare on which Mandela reflects in Long Walk to Freedom as a point of focus. Why would he dream of such devastating isolation, such desolation? What purpose could such a nightmare serve for his political thought?

Drawing on Freud’s notion of the transposition of dream-thoughts into dream images, Sliwinski notes: “Dreams think, Freud insists, even if this unconscious mode of thought bears little affinity to the conscious forms of reasoning … the dreamer experiences her thoughts rather than ‘thinks’ them in concepts.” The objective, then, for Sliwinski, is to read the thought encrypted in the dream images, following the passage from images back to thoughts that can never be fully recovered, in the reverse direction.

As this relates to Mandela’s dream, Sliwinski writes, it “visually staged the sense of alienation and unfreedom that the incarceration inflicted … achingly dramatized what a life separated from one’s loved ones felt like for the dreamer.” In this way, Sliwinski continues, “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.” Mandela’s dream, Sliwinski thus argues, allowed him to transcend apartheid’s unfreedom insofar as it “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 … enabling him to turn his political condition into a figure for thought.” To represent his condition, to reflect upon the total control of his own waking life, but also—and this becomes a crucial point—that of all living under apartheid. Instead of a book about sovereignty, there is a dream of unfreedom.

In writing of “alienation” and “unfreedom” as being “staged” and “dramatized” in Mandela’s dream, Sliwinski invokes what Arendt underlines in her reading of Kant, that judgment takes place from the perspective of the “spectator” who is able to imaginatively occupy all the perspectives of the actors onstage, so as to come to an “impartial” judgment, transcend the limits of both one’s own position and those of all individual actors whose perspectives remain “partial,” allowing one to assume the “proper distance” necessary for reflection. If the feeling produced by the dream was, for Mandela, one of desolation, reflecting on this from the perspective of everyone, his judgment of apartheid assumed a dimension, in Kantian terms, of general validity, universality: apartheid as a kind of desolation not only affecting him, but everyone.

Whereas the shortcomings of the 1994 transition in South Africa are routinely reckoned by subsuming the particulars of everyday post-apartheid life under pregiven, normative concepts, Sliwinski’s provocation is to read into Mandela’s political thought a concept of the post-apartheid that was produced in his encounter with such particulars as they were staged in his dreams, a concept of post-apartheid derived, that is to say, in Kantian terms, through reflective rather than determinative judgment. Apartheid is judged as universally evil not against any existing concept of human freedom, but upon the grounds of a subjective feeling, which is reflected upon from the standpoint of everyone. Mandela’s dream-life, the suggestion seems to be, allowed him to come to a universal, objective judgment, and allowed him to produce the criteria according which apartheid can be judged.

Mandela’s Dark Years, it should be noted, makes only a brief, almost passing invocation of the sublime. As Kant elaborates it, the sublime relates not to an object perceived but to the feeling in the subject as it apprehends the unrepresentable, the incommunicable. In the sublime, the imagination, incapable of referring to the understanding of any visualized design, gives itself over to reason under whose dominion there is derived, for the subject, what Kant calls a “negative pleasure,” an experience which “may be compared with a shaking.” If the beautiful directly furthers what Kant calls “the feeling of life,” the sublime promotes this feeling through the circuitous route of its initial hindrance. The sublime is, thus, “a pleasure that is only possible by means of a displeasure.” It is, above all, for Kant, the triumph of reason over the matter of nature to which, ultimately, the human is subject and powerless. In short, the sublime is reason’s assertion of its “supremacy over sensibility.”

One has to assume that reason is maintained despite the overwhelming pain of Mandela’s apprehension of apartheid as it is staged in his dream, giving him what Arendt calls the “proper distance” for reflection. But it is not Enlightenment reason, Sliwinski suggests, but another reason, at least another form of thought, that rises above such terror. And it is not in relation to nature, “its chaos, or,” as Kant writes, “its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation,” that Mandela stands overwhelmed but ultimately triumphant; it is the order of apartheid he apprehends, which is the horrifying disorder to which life is subject—certain lives more severely, violently subject, but all nonetheless—and over which another form of reason ascends. And instead of taking the sublime as a part of the conceptual conditions according to which colonial rule was established and maintained—the standard postcolonial reading of Kant—the sublime is mobilized, by Sliwinski, as a mode through which to transcend, to triumph over that order of disorder.

The formulation, taking on some aspects of Kant’s critical philosophy, leaving aside others—hoping that this portion will stay left aside—comes with enormous risks. Kant asserts that moral fortitude is required for the sublime, indeed that the sublime is a civilizational accomplishment, the name of which is culture. Not all people are capable, in Kant’s view, of sublime experience. Without “moral ideas,” Kant writes, the sublime “merely strikes the untutored individual as terrifying.” Which is a moderation of his earlier claim that blacks are incapable of sublime experience. It seems needless to say that it is insufficient to cast Mandela as an exemplary figure of the triumph of reason over sensibility. Put in the bluntest of terms, one simply renders him a reasoning black man, which, according to Kant’s infamous essay on race, would make him white. However, Sliwinski leaves open the possibility, never fully stated, that Mandela’s sublime object, what produces in him a feeling of painful powerlessness and, then, pleasurable independence, is precisely the horror of what Kant’s work made possible. The sublime, in other words, is marshaled against itself.

At this particular moment of decolonization fever, of resounding calls for the Africanization of the university, a genealogy that places Mandela into a kinship with the Enlightenment, from which he does deviate—this departure named by the Enlightenment—but to which his political thought is, also, related, will not sit well with everyone. What Mandela’s Dark Years suggests, in the face of a monstrous wager, is that Mandela’s political thought intervenes into injustices that have their conditions of possibility not merely in a system that emerged in 1948 in South Africa, but in a formation, which reaches back at least to the world of the eighteenth century. In the now mountainous literature on Mandela, Sliwinski’s little book takes an obscure angle to make an important contribution: if it is often said that Mandela made compromises it should also be noted that he inhabited the discourse of the oppressor so as to overturn it. Indeed, he did this in his sleep.

Further Reading