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The Political Dream

It is a bizarre feature of humankind that in the Western world the night dream is generally seen as pretty meaningless, and yet it provides, if not the reason, then certainly the excuse for some of the most savage and xenophobic of contemporary Nation State policies. Jacob’s ladder dream at Bethel (Genesis 28) is the occasion when Jacob ‘saw’ angels ascending up a ladder and ‘heard’ God give the land on which he lay to him and his descendants, promising this territory in perpetuity. Today, the F16 fighters flying over the Negev desert gain their political mandate from the memory of this recorded, remembered and well-milked dream imagery. The Zionist pitch for territorial statehood in Judea and Samaria is at the end of the day based on a recorded dream recounted over two thousand years ago!
Nor is Israel the only western state so formed in the imagination of its citizens. Jonathan Steele recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper (29.6.98) how the territorial mandate of the Serbian State is imaginatively based on a reported dream. In this case the dream is recorded as occurring to the Serbian Prince Lazar the night before the historically decisive battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 A.D (Vickers 1998: 14). In this dream a falcon apparently offers the Prince a choice of achieving either a heavenly or an earthly kingdom. Choosing a heavenly kingdom, Prince Lazar subsequently ‘lost’ the battle to the Ottomons the next day, and this dreamt reality, unseen by another, gave birth several centuries later to the present Kosovo myth of Serbian national identity. Indeed Steele, in the same article, records how Milovan Djilas, Yugoslavia’s “best-known dissident” wrote: “Wipe away Kosovo from the Serb mind and soul and we are no more. If there had been no battle at Kosovo, the Serbs would have invented it for its suffering and heroism”. Even though the Serb myth of the tragic defeat at Kosovo only became politically invented in the nineteenth century (Malcom 1998: 79), it too is a key element in the collective memory and political authorisation of the Serbian state. The savagery inflicted by such Serbian nationalism this decade and currently threatening the Albanian majority of the Kosovo province of Serbia is again based at least in part on a recorded DREAM!
Of course, state genocide and ethnic cleansing, call it what you will, is a complex historical and cultural phenomenon and ‘the dream’ will have gone through many a permutation before it becomes what social anthropologists, following Malinowski, describe as a ‘charter myth’. Malinowski (1954:116) writes of a charter myth as being a myth of origin for ‘a primitive people’ that: “conveys, expresses and strengthens the fundamental fact of local unity and of the kinship unity of the group of people descendant from a common ancestress….the story of origin literally contains the legal charter of the community”. Malinowski, however, wrote about ‘primitive peoples’ and of mythological stories rather than of dreams as such. And dreams and myths are different. Dreams begin as perceived mental pictures that can be filtered into a linguistically-based consciousness and reported within a culturally constructed human setting that will contain reporting codes and local theories of dream signification and relevance. Reported dreams move, as the anthropologist Kracke (1987: 32) noted, from being mental pictures into narratives, whilst myths move the other way from being narratives into mental pictures. Dreams that then become myths, however, as in the Zionist and Kosovo examples, travel the whole gamut from being originally the mental imagery of an individual via narrative expression and eventually become a defining and sacred mental imagery, a myth, for a whole group or as in the above examples for a whole, or at least a part of, a nation. What a power we give to a picture that no-one else except the dreamer ever eventually ‘sees’!
The irony, tragic for many in these current crucibles of human history and state terror, doesn’t stop there, as usually ‘we’ in the Western world deride the dream as being, as the cognitive psychologists would have us think, no more than the automatic mentation of a sleeping mind bent on shutting down the day-loaded computers of the brain. How different is the situation in non-Western societies where the dream is usually seen as a profound resource for divination, healing and hunting and all aspects of life both for the individual and the group; indeed there are shamanic societies (Moss 1986:166) in which it is believed that nothing happens in waking reality before it has been performed first in the dreamspace. But unless in the West you attend for psychoanalysis, few outside the contemporary dreamwork movement take the reported dream very seriously, as being more than something to talk about for a minute or two at work or home as perhaps being a form of curious jest involving the reconfiguration of work or home relationships in the dreamworld. And yet we see in Serbia and Israel, that for very many people the springs of personal, historical and religious identity are founded, at least to some extent, on reported and recorded dreams. Truly, a very human enigma.