Strange Encounters: Dreams and Nightmares of High School Students in Papua New Guinea

By Epstein, A. L. | Oceania, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Strange Encounters: Dreams and Nightmares of High School Students in Papua New Guinea


Epstein, A. L., Oceania


INTRODUCTION

My old teacher, Max Gluckman, used to warn against what he called 'trespass' against interdisciplinary boundaries; in his view each discipline should pursue its own agenda, seeking its own regularities in the data, so that one crossed these boundaries at one's own peril. But Gluckman also recognised that certain problems might require recourse to the expertise of another discipline: in that event one was obliged to adopt a stance of 'deliberate naivety'(Gluckman 1964). This was a doctrine with which I had some difficulty (for a criticism see Epstein, 1992a, ch.8). I had become interested in certain problems where it seemed to me essential that I adopt the dual perspectives of anthropology and psychoanalysis, a step that was in clear violation of the 'limits of naivety'. I owe much therefore to Bryce Boyer for his encouragement in pursuing this aim; the present paper on the dreams and nightmares of Papua New Guinean students is, I hope an appropriate acknowledgment of my debt to him.

As it happens, dreams constitute a topic in which psychoanalysts and anthropologists have long shared interest, but it is the divergence of approach rather than the community of interest that has been the more conspicuous. For psychoanalysts dreams have not only offered the royal road to the unconscious, they have also become the key tool in exploring the relationship with their patients; in these regards the dream is thus seen as integral to the therapeutic process. For their part anthropologists have rarely been analytically qualified and accordingly, with rare exceptions, a therapeutic role has played no part in their fieldwork. Concomitantly, there is an important difference in the analyst's relationship with the patient and that of the anthropological fieldwork with the people amongst whom he/she is living and working. To mention but a few points: in the first case it is the patient who seeks out the analyst; while the full co-operation of the patient is essential to the course of the analysis, the analyst nonetheless is in a position of authority. By contrast, in the fieldwork situation it is the anthropologist who has to seek out his or her informants and is thus dependent on them for what information they are prepared to offer. Undoubtedly the relationship of ethnographer and informant has its own complexities, but in the ordinary way this does not amount to an 'analytic situation'; the task of the anthropologist is to seek information of a kind that the informant is able and prepared to give him, not to acquaint him with himself; not seeking to explore the latter's unconscious motivations, he does not ordinarily have to grapple with such knotty problems as a psychoanalyst confronts every day in his consulting room: transference neurosis, resistance and so on.

How these factors bear on the divergence of approach that the two disciplines usually manifest may readily be seen by taking the issue of dream interpretation as an example. Psychoanalysts and anthropologists working with dream material are both patently interested in interpretation, but for the former the major concern is with latent content, for the latter the focus has tended to be on the folk system of interpretation i.e. the particular (emic) construction that is placed on dreams in a given culture (e.g. Meggitt 1962; Strathern 1989). As Tuzin (1975:560) has remarked in this regard, the typical format of much earlier anthropological analysis has been to describe the folk interpretation system and then, taking this as a 'social fact', to explore its integration with other sociocultural phenomena. More recently an increasing number of anthropologists have collected material on dreams and analysed it from a variety of points of view, but although some have had recourse to Freudian ideas, concern has remained overwhelmingly with manifest content (see e.g. Kennedy and Langness 1981; Tedlock 1987; Stephen 1995). On the other hand, it should also be noted that there are now a number of anthropologists who have undergone training in psychoanalysis, some of whom have made use of Freudian theory in handling dream material (e.

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