March 12, 2008

Developing a relationship to fairy tales - closing remarks (part 2)

(To interpret, or not to interpret?)

Why is it important that these stories are a mixed bag, and don't neatly fit the categories scholarship has created for them? Because seen in this way, one can appreciate that all of the approaches I've mentioned so far in this essay, as well as many others I haven't mentioned, are legitimate in their own rite.

But precisely because there are many different kinds of narratives lumped together under the rubric of "fairy tales," one has to be careful which methods one applies to which fairy tales.

Again, there's an apt comparison to dreams and dreamwork. When working with a dream, it is essential that the dreamer feels deeply within his intuition to determine what kind of dream is in question (I credit Robert Moss and his book Conscious Dreaming for making this clear to me).

Let's say that you dream your uncle Charlie comes to you and tells you that your boss has a sharp sword in his office and he plans to cut off your head the next time you go there. In order to begin working with this dream, the dreamer has to decide whether it is a) transpersonal, b) prescient, or c) psychological (or another type of dream, but this covers the big categories). The dreamer has to ask himself: do I really feel that uncle Charlie came to me? Or does the image of Charlie represent something? If he feels it really was Charlie (i.e. a transpersonal dream), then it would be foolish to try interpreting Charlie as a symbol. One would miss the entire point! If one feels Charlie is a symbol, or represents a principle or "archetype" (i.e. it's a psychological dream) then one would apply other tools. The dreamer would also have to ask himself "do I feel this dream is speaking of the future?" If yes (i.e. it's a prescient dream), then the manner of treating this dream would, again, be different.

Using the wrong tools on a given dream yields dubious results. The same applies to fairy tales, especially considering the types of fairy tales that Rudolf Steiner and Werner Zurfluh are talking about. If the narrative speaks of a hero who must cross a threshold into another world, and the terms of the story indicate that what follows is the hero's psychic experience, it does very little good to get out all the tools of literary analysis and try to interpret this passage or the subsequent passage (dealing with the hero's adventure beyond the threshold) with post-modern, post-colonial, feminist, queer, hermeneutic, Jungian, Freudian, structuralist or any other type of criticism. It just misses the point.

And another parallel between dreamwork and "fairy tale work": It's very important that you base your own understanding of a fairy tale on your own experience. There is great danger in abdicating to so-called experts one's own right to decide the significance and meaning of aesthetic artifacts. Just because someone has degrees from respected institutions doesn't automatically give them insight into matters as deep as the ancient stories told by our race, nor into the meaning of creative inspirations from sources deep within our beings. The modern world regards the word inspiration, which means "to breathe in the spirit", as a quaint, colorful, but ultimately antiquated metaphor. Creativity is believed to arise in the physical brain. The average educated person believes that all the meanings of artistic creations can be found by means of various intellectual, analytical processes. And this is patently untrue. There are some things the objective mind cannot penetrate. Let's look again at that remark Rudolf Steiner made about symbols:

"Explanation and interpretation of symbols is really nonsense; so too is all theorising about symbols. The true attitude to symbols is to make them and actually experience them. It is the same as with fables and legends and fairy tales. — These should never be received merely abstractly, one must identify oneself with them. There is always something in man whereby he can enter into all the figures of the fairy tale, whereby he can make himself one with the fairy tale. And so it is with these true symbols of olden times, which come originally from spiritual knowledge..."

Many people are confused when you tell them that you should not focus your efforts on interpreting fairy tales, just as they have troubles understanding how you deal with dreams without immediately jumping to the interpretation. That's what the intellectual culture we've been brought up in tells us to do. Everyone has seen films in which there is someone lying on a couch and telling their dream to a shrink, and the shrink tells that person what the dream means, right? Your English teacher in high school (or English professor in college) gives you a poem or a story, and you're supposed to analyse it and interpret it, right? So, naturally, when you get something as highly symbolic as a fairy tale, which anyone with a couple of live nerve endings and a remnant of the natural in-born sense of awe knows is just pregnant with significance and meaning, what do you think you're supposed to do with it? Interpret it, of course! Wrong.

What can you do instead of interpret? If you have graphic skills, you can take a page out of the Waldorf school book and draw or paint the motifs of a fairy tale. You can act them out with friends and family playing different roles (OK, I admit I've never tried this with fairy tales. But I have tried acting out dreams with friends. Powerful stuff!) You could simply review the dream in your mind and then journal about the episodes in your life it reminds you of. You can use a tale, a part of a tale, or even just an image in the tale as the subject of a meditation. The possibilities are up to your own creativity. But the most important thing is to read them repeatedly. If you have children the right age to tell fairy tales, you are blessed. You don't have to contrive a reason for reading them, nor to justify the time you spend reading them. And there is also something special about reading them out loud. You get to experience the tales as a fringe benefit of doing service for your children. And never doubt for a moment: reading fairy tales to your children is a great service.

One last remark. I apologize to anyone who takes umbrage at my sometime somewhat dismissive attitude to the discipline of psychology. As the old joke goes: some of my best friends as psycholgists (I just wouldn't want my daughter to marry one!). The reason for this is that, despite an increasing number of enlightened individuals among their ranks, there is still a frightening number of them who fail to be human when examining the human mind, and who feel it is their duty to destroy and discredit anything that supports a viewpoint based on the divine nature of man's essence (the soul), mistakenly believing they are fighting superstition and ignorance, when indeed they are only showing their intolerance and ignorance of things beyond the ken of their particular sub specialty.

The blinders that give many psychologists tunnel vision is a combination of materialism and the limits imposed on them by the scientific method. Materialism is a state of mind that refuses to acknowledge anything beyond the physical senses (or the measurement instruments that represent an extension of our senses). Unfortunately, dealing with the products of the subconscious and the imagination does not always yield easily repeatable results. Instinct, emotion and intuition are equally as important as reason and logic. And although many psychologists would like to stake out the territory of fairy tales and dreams as their own, in which non-shrink dilettantes dabble at their peril, they forget that dealing with these worlds is much more an art than a science. And these realms are everyone's birhtright.

1 comment:

anthromama said...

I like what you say about working with a fairy tale in a nonabstract way. In Foundation Year, my husband and I made table puppets and performed "The Queen Bee" for our classmates. What a profound experience that was.

And right now my kids are very engrossed with hearing "Little Briar Rose." I'm just starting to get brave enough to read fairy tales that have "scary" or "negative" bits--like the kings' sons who die pitiful deaths entangled in the briars--because I have been strongly influenced by early childhood teachers who say to wait on those kinds of stories until age 6 or so. I feel like they are ready now, even though my daughter is only 4. I'm trying not to interpret them, but approach the stories in a more feeling or even instinctive way.