The British Empire’s invasion of the dream world
May 2, 2020 9:04 AM   Subscribe

The Imperial dream database of Charles Gabriel Seligman of the LSE was the result of a huge project to gather and interpret the dreams of the subjects of the Empire. The results were not exactly as expected.
posted by Segundus (11 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It's like a containment breach from Pynchon
posted by thelonius at 1:04 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

An overriding motif appears to be that the subjects dreamed the British authorities were treating them as extremely abusive parents would treat children.

And from a superficial reading of Victorian authors such as Dickens, there seems to have been some kind of weird backreaction which caused the British to exploit and abuse their own children as if they were only subjects.
posted by jamjam at 1:46 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]

Segundus, thank you for posting this.

It was such a weird project, and yet even fairly honest data collection turned up important truths.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:00 PM on May 2

jamjam: there seems to have been some kind of weird backreaction which caused the British to exploit and abuse their own children as if they were only subjects.

shades of “any weapon used abroad will eventually be used by the police at home”
posted by sixswitch at 6:36 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]

Time to ask if present-day citizens of India, Algeria, Nigeria and the like ever have anxiety dreams about authority figures. Bets?
posted by homerica at 8:20 PM on May 2

In a slightly adjacent reality one could see H.P. Lovecraft as a Josef K like figure working on the US equivalent out of Miskatonic, becoming terrified of what was climbing up the stairs out of the Dreamlands, born from the subconscious of the victims of empire.

Are the cats of Ulthar a coded representation of his racist guilt?
posted by fallingbadgers at 8:31 PM on May 2 [6 favorites]

I like the chap who wrote back to Seligman "It is dreary beyond words and unappetizing to apply anything like statistical methods to the execretory habits of the young, but I will do my best …"
posted by paduasoy at 11:44 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]

This was a powerful story but I felt like the author was kind of giving these Empire decision makers way too much credit for how befuddled and confused they were about what their subjects were thinking & feeling and set out on a great quest for knowledge, too bad the answers were always just out of reach. It's more like they didn't give a shit how they felt but wanted to see if they could read their minds to oppress them better.

I did think that the image the story presents of them basically asking these people's unconsciouses to speak to them and getting the message back "Hey, this sucks, you suck, and fuck you". And the content and volume of the message overflowing all of their preconceived notions and attempts to put it in boxes. And the message was received! They understood it! The human spirit is an amazing thing when you think about it.
posted by bleep at 12:42 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of another dream-collecting project. The Jewish journalist Charlotte Beradt collected people's dreams in Nazi Germany, interested in how their dreams were affected by dictatorship. Here's a piece about her in The New Yorker and here is her book Third Reich of Dreams, freely available on
posted by Termite at 2:16 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Would this data set be available online anywhere?
posted by lon_star at 5:21 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

The header photo in the Aeon piece - wow. Perfectly chosen.
posted by doctornemo at 8:19 AM on May 3

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