The Ill-Tempered Reader

I had a friend a few years ago who, in order to better his running pace, would plant himself on a treadmill in front of FOX News and let the anger flowing through his blood add that extra little boost to his mileage rate. He could also listen to right-wing talk radio as a source of inspiration for absurdist and darkly comedic writing projects. In short, instead of letting these forms of mediated inhumanity defeat him, he used their evil to his advantage.

Angry philosopher hurling a book, 1838 (Wikimedia Commons)

Angry philosopher hurling a book, 1838 (Wikimedia Commons)

I was thinking about said friend while plodding my way through Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, an analysis of folk fairy tales and an argument for their benefits for children. Although the book isn’t in the same category of Infuriating Things as is hateful pseudo-journalism, being confronted with an author who’s so completely slurped up every last drop of Freudian Kool-Aid is exasperating. I had to wonder why, instead of just fuming and rolling my eyeballs and writing “BS!” in notes and margins, I’m unable to sublimate, as the psychoanalytic They would say, my frustration, and write up a good satire of Bettelheim, who’s so eager to buy into a cosmology created by someone who wanted to universalize his own warped issues, and who pretty much bullied out of the circle of his chosen ones anyone who questioned him.* Vaginas here, penises and envy thereof there, incestuous desires everywhere– yes, sex and the issues that go along with it are hugely influential in our lives– but the way Bettelheim presents it comes with a predictably reified and heteronormative vision of gender and its assumptions, roles, and desires.

Sure, fairy tales aren’t all that they appear to be on the surface, and I do agree with Bettelheim that we should let kids read them and be told them in their full weirdness and horror, instead of substituting Disney and other vapid ventures for their entertainment and learning. And of course Freud played a huge role in getting us to think about the reality of the unconscious, and of the function/purpose/use of dreams. Sure. But he, and many of his followers, seem unable to understand that human ideas and creations, at least to a significant degree, are fallible and unavoidably subjective and culturally determined. In addition to the ostensibly eternal and determinative reality of the Oedipus complex, I’m also amused by Freudians’ often-apparent belief that id, ego, and superego are actual structures in the brain, instead of metaphors to describe ways in which said brain works. And yes, much of this hard-core belief in Freudian basics has been softened, attenuated, and/or otherwise adjusted, as in Lacan– but still: it all seems like one more humanly created metaphysical system to me, a religion without a god, unless a central idea can serve that function.

Oh yeah, and among all the other problems I have with Bettelheim’s book? He totally read Antigone wrong, chalking up the heroine’s decision to bury Polynices as “over-intense sibling attachment.”** Nothing here about her insistence on honoring the gods, or Creon’s attempt to elevate himself-as-the-state over divinely instituted practices. Nothing about a woman refusing to look passively upon a tyrant’s actions, and make a risky stand against them to do what human dignity demands.***

I’m sure I could go on for another few paragraphs about everything that offends me about this book, written in the different past of 1975, by a guy born in 1903 who blamed autism on frigid mothers. (Thankfully, the powers-that-be have at least trashed that notion by now.) But as opposed to my anger-fueled running friend, getting my knickers into that sort of twist only makes me tired and sad. So instead, I’ll bring this little missive to a close, and be thankful I can finally move on to something that, whatever it is, is at least not Bettelheim.


* See the case of Carl Jung, for example.

** Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 198. The allegation is so ridiculous, I nearly laughed out loud, both when reading it, and when typing out the quotation.

** Yes, Polynices was part of a coup attempt. But even criminals are buried, and that’s part of the whole tragic situation of there being no real right answer to the question of what was going on in Thebes, a situation due to much vaster forces than buried oedipal conflicts.


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