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Trust the Tale

In response to:

Driving Out Demons from the July 15, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Harold Bloom’s generous and sensitive review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (NYR, July 15, 1976) points to some very important issues concerning the nature of interpretation, especially psychoanalytic interpretation, of fairy tales, or any other texts. First Bloom points to Bettelheim’s central assumption that his interpretation will yield an “accurate” account of the child’s interpretation, and he indicates that this assumption might be questioned, were it not that such questioning might “destroy” the “confidence” of the child analyst. Later on, Bloom says that Bettelheim’s “will-to-power,” which is his “will-to-health for young children,” while an “authentic and admirable” motive, ignores interpretations better suited to “a repressed element in a text” and “the demonic text itself.” I have two questions about these issues, both of which apply to Bettelheim’s interpretations and Bloom’s counter-suggestion that fairy tales appeal to “the instinct for Sublime experience” rather than the desire for “adjustment” to “adult reality.”

  1. Why would an interpreter’s confidence be destroyed if he questioned, or even abandoned, the assumption of a correspondence between his own interpretation and some other person’s experience of a fairy tale, whether benign or not, and whether the other person is a child or not?

  2. Are not Bettleheim and Bloom both providing examples of what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” exempting themselves from responsibility for their interpretations by equating the strategies of reading with realities in a text? (How can there be a “repressed element in a text”? Texts don’t repress, people do.)

I ask these questions out of a suspicion that the sense of power in the act of interpretation derives, for both author and reviewer, from a disavowal of personal choice disguised as a transcendence of choice in their own languages of interpretation. Bettelheim’s is the orthodox language of psychoanalysis through which he universalizes meanings and assumes that deviations from them or agreements with them indicate the child’s position in relation to “adult reality,” whatever that is. Bloom’s interpretation assumes an “us” which has an “instinct” that we either admit or deny in reading fairy tales, which have things like “repression” and the “Sublime” inside them. Both men seem to require that the text be made the author of their own interpretations, lest these interpretations seem merely personal statements. Does the will-to-power mean, “I am not telling you what is good for you, the text is”?

Murray M. Schwartz

Department of English

State University of New York at Buffalo

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