Carol A. Muller

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20042005 Forum on Sleep and Dreams

Carol A. Muller

Associate Professor, Music

Dialogues on Dreams, Western and “Third-world” Ideas of Dreaming

Dreams have provided a subtext for much of Dr. Muller’s work on South African expressive culture. For example, dreams were the site where in the early twentieth century, ancestors passed on to Isaiah Shembe, black South African prophet and healer, a new indigenous hymn repertory. It is in dreams that jazz performers are periodically guided through their compositional and performance experiences. It is through dreams that many imagined the possibilities of a new political dispensation in South Africa. Dreams authorize behavior and direct the lives of several subjects of these studies. 

The problem with dreams, however, is that they occur when the human body is at its most passive, while the dreamer is asleep and the body is in a state of temporary “death.” In Western thinking, dreaming has been pathologized; it works only as an indicator of the well being of the individual psyche. In contrast, it is in this state of sleep or temporary “death” that many in the “Third” world connect to ancestors through dream journeys. As sleep allows for the renewal of the physical body, dreaming enables spiritual connection. Dreaming provides a privileged access to the past and to the present, and directs individuals and communities to a future place. 

Dr. Muller will juxtapose “Third world” ideas about dreaming with contemporary psychological and psychoanalytical literature on the subject. Intertwining these distinctive groups of ideas about sleep and dreams will create a textual dialogue between the two domains. The hope is to reconcile the epistemological differences embedded in both, and perhaps to forge a more comprehensive or at least integrated dialogue on the nature of sleep and dreams in the contemporary world.