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Monday, December 15, 2008


In my last essay, I wrote:

"But what Wertham and Legman failed to take seriously was that all people capable of at least elementary cognition-- whether children or adults-- know that there is always some possibility that they could be victims of violent crime, particularly (but not exclusively) when they reside in urban centers."

It later struck me that this sounded similar to the views expressed by Bruno Bettelheim in his most famed work, THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, which concerned the way children read fairy-tales as a way of coping with the anxities of surviving in a world of (sometimes violent) adults. However, I'm not precisely on the same page as the late psychologist.

I read USES many years ago and thought it was a fair premise, albeit marked by a certain utilitarianism. While I would never deny that readers may internalize the subject matter of fiction so as to give the subject some personally-proactive theme, it's certainly not the principal quality of fiction, nor do I think most readers, children or adults, are thinking to themselves, even unconsciously, "How can I 'use' this?" Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.

Apparently Bettleheim was strongly influenced by the late works of Sigmund Freud, in contrast to earlier-mentioned Legman and Wertham, who take what Freudian influences they possess from Psychology-Dad's early works. Thus the latter two see things largely in terms of a given reader's gratification (what Freud would later call the "pleasure principle"), while Bettelheim reconfigures the reader's needs in terms of Freud's corresponding "reality principle."

That fiction of all modes and genres can lend itself to both of these principles should go without saying. Therefore, I do conjure three times the name of Bettelheim so that that when he does come forth from the vasty deep, I can promptly send him right back.


Curt Purcell said...

I think Bettelheim brings a lot of interesting insight to his consideration of individual stories and even broad themes. Whether I agree with his overarching framework is another matter . . .

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for your comment, Curt. Yeah, Bettelheim is essentially one of the good guys in my book, even if I did use his name for a crappy "Beetlejuice" joke.

I think one has to be careful about coming up with explanations for a reader's "reasons" for reading. It's probably impossible for any critic who notices a particular "reason" not to overemphasize it over other reasons, because then it becomes that critic's pet theory,an expression of the critic's own self. But Bettelheim certainly was not the worst of even the "good guys" in that department.