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DO SENOI PRACTICE "SENOI DREAM THEORY?"

G. William Domhoff

Jeremy Taylor is seriously misinformed about everything he says concerning the Temiar and Semai peoples who are collectively called "Senoi" by us, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to set the record straight.

I begin with some factual points that do not have anything to so with dreams directly, but which give some indication of Taylor's grasp of the overall situation. First, we are talking bout Malaysia, which has nothing to do with "Indonesia" and "Sukharno." Second, Senoi were not put in "stockades" during or after World War II, but for two years during the 1950's when the British were fighting a counterinsurgency war against guerrillas recruited from among Chinese immigrants by the Malaysian Communist Party. Third, by no means all, or even most Senoi were forced into stockades in the attempt to isolate guerrillas, and the stockades were unsuccessful because the people could move deeper into the jungle, far beyond where the fighting took place. But the main point is that no Senoi have been in stockades for over 35 years. Fourth, it stretches a point to claim this war was an "indigenous national liberation struggle," for most Malays were opposed to the guerrillas and the Chinese Communist Party added the Malaysian. Fifth, the British directed this counterinsurgency, not the Americans, although here Taylor could perhaps stretch a point and argue that the Americans were the ultimate backers of all anti-communist battles after World War II.

Sixth, it is romantic to talk about Senoi as "ranging freely" in the highlands of Malaysia before World War II because they had been driven into those highlands centuries ago by the invading Malays, who often captured them as slaves until the British stopped the practice early in this century. Seventh, Senoi people are not "polyandrous." Eighth, Stewart did not live with Senoi in their long houses when Noone and Stewart were collecting dreams; he lived in a house adjacent to the mixed Temiar-Semai settlement where they worked. But it wouldn't have mattered if he had lived in a long house because he couldn't speak the language and knew nothing of the culture. He was only there for a few weeks at best.

Serious though these errors are, they are not directly relevant to the issue that concerns dream researchers: did Senoi once use "Senoi dream theory" and then abandon it or hide it due to cultural disruption? For that issue the following points are critical: First, neither Noone nor any other pre-World War II observer of Senoi ever wrote anything about Senoi dream practices that remotely approaches any of the unique practices (dream sharing in morning groups and using techniques of dream control) that we call "Senoi dream theory." Sure, Senoi have a theory of dreams, and dreams are important for those becoming "adepts" (healers), but the actual Senoi dream theory is about like the ones that are found in most small traditional societies around the world. Second not even Stewart himself made any mention of the unique aspects of "Senoi dream theory" in his 1948 dissertation. Further, the dreams recorded in the appendix of the dissertation contradict his later claim that Senoi have many pleasurable flying dreams and gain control of falling dreams.

Third, anthropologist Iskander Carey, who studied Temiar settlements in the 1950's, reported that the counterinsurgency war increased their contact with outsiders, but that "neither Communist Terrorists nor the Strategic Forces have basically altered the Temiar way of life, and their physical isolation makes any great changes unlikely in the near future." In fact, the gradual development of the Malaysian highlands did not affect Senoi life greatly until the 1970's, so there is no case for cultural disruption until recently.

Fourth, anthropologist Geoffrey Benjamin studied Temiar groups in the 1960's that had not been forced into stockades by the British, and he reports that he found no sign of the practices we call" Senoi dream theory." One of the settlements he studied was the basis for Noone's only published paper; using the names mentioned in Noone's paper, Benjamin found there was great continuity in the families in the settlement from the 1930's to the 1960's. Benjamin in fact interviewed Temiar who had been assistants to Noone. Benjamin, incidentally, speaks the Temiar's language, so there were no "government and military interpreters" present.

Fifth, anthropologist Robert Denton did some of his lengthy fieldwork in the 1960's in the same mixed Temiar-Semai settlement that was the site for Noone and Stewart's work on dreams, but he found no sign of any of the beliefs or practices that we call " Senoi dream theory." Dentan lived with Senoi for many months and knew the language well, with no interpreters present, so I do not believe he would have missed dream sharing groups in a tiny settlement or that people would hide their beliefs from him.

As against all this systematic evidence over decades from a number of different trained observers that there is great continuity in Senoi culture and no hint of unique dream practices, Taylor relies primarily on an impassioned memoir published in 1972 by Richard Noone, brother of Stewart's fried Pat, in which he tries to understand his brother's death in the Malaysian highlands in the early 1940's. The alleged knowledge of one dream by a Senoi arrested during the counterinsurgency is said by Taylor to be "significant evidence" of communal dream sharing. Come on. Nothing hinges on this one alleged dream or on why the captive allegedly heard about it. The weight of the evidence is so overwhelming against any unique " Senoi dream theory" that an anecdote like this recalled many years after the event by a frightened man hoping to escape imprisonment has no standing whatsoever. Taylor is in fact grasping at straws instead of adopting the scientific attitude that is necessary here.

Taylor also adopts the technique of creating a straw man when he says Stewart's critics say he "faked his research," which is something I never wrote. I said that Stewart was a romantic story teller with little knowledge of Senoi peoples who confused his observations of a variety of small traditional societies with his own musings and theorizing. I said he created a fable that has great appeal to Americans because it resonates with our "can-do" we-can-control anything, self-improvement ideology. Yes, I think Carlos Castaneda "fakes" his research and consciously perpetrates a fraud, but I do not think that of Stewart, who was a guru type, a pontificator, not a hoaxer.

Everything I have written about Senoi culture her is documented in my book. The Mystique of Dreams (1985), which means that Taylor did not read it very carefully. Nor did he do his homework in other relevant sources before he made his pitch for the possible validity of Senoi dream theory, complete with dramatic claims about how American anti-communism and Indonesian internment camps led Senoi to lose or hide their true dream practices. I thus think that in this instance he is functioning as a missionary for a certain view of dreams, as a missionary for a certain , as a person of strong convictions who does not seem to worry much about empirical details and contrary evidence. Perhaps he shares some foibles with Kilton Stewart.

Everyone's foibles aside, it is a mystery to me why anyone would want to continue to insist that Senoi practice "Senoi dream theory" if Taylor, Patricia Garfield, and a few others really can control their dreams through Stewart's techniques. Although the systematic literature does not suggest that very many people can shape their dreams very much for very long, the claims of Taylor and Garfield are a more promising starting point for evidence that dream control works than anything we are likely to learn about the mistreated aboriginal people upon whom Stewart projected his amelioristic therapeutic yearnings.

 

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