The Beauty of Sleep

The Irrational Rationale of Fairy Tales

In life it does not do well to get lost in the serene utopianism of fairy tales; however, the act of reading them is one that enables the reader to be found amid that wilderness of desire. The desire to be lost so that our parents will find us is one of childhood’s most violently suppressed desires. This is because our parents are always reassuring us of their love, protection and hospitality while sometimes (which are the times that matter the most to the child) committing actions that prove the opposite, staining the glass by which we see them as our heroes whom we would want to imitate. But when we realize that our parents are not whom we want to mimic, we begin to look around for those who feel like us and in whom we see ourselves. It's then that we see those castaways, runaways, orphaned siblings and adopted children with whom the fairy tale landscape is teeming that the child finds as if he’s finally found a place to call home.

The child then feels confident about being lost because s/he knows that by dint of the same magic with which those in the stories were saved, their parents too will rescue them. Fairy tales, like our dreams, give us the ‘good things of life’. Pursuing this goal, the tales begin with a relatively happy state which is quickly threatened by the onset of the dire circumstance in which the protagonists finds themselves (through no fault of their own, but due to a mysterious curse) and which inaugurates the period of change via deprivation which intensifies the nostalgia for the lost paradise of home. The child, while listening to the tale, followed by the adult later in life, is attracted to this uncanny feeling of homelessness which is what a mixture of pain (of the loss of something) and pleasure (of being able to compensate for it via art) produces. Thus for Jung, the characters and the conflicts of the fairy-tale are symbols of our (spiritual) inner development and thus, it is of little wonder then, that they segue so well with what we call our dream-selves/ archetypes.

In one of his papers dealing with fairy tales and dreams, Freud says that ‘adults have made their recollections of fairy tales into screen memories’, making two detailed studies of his patients, one of whom was the famous ‘Wolf Man’ who dreamed about ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which disturbing dream it was he whom the wolf was about to devour. Freud later found out that this association was made due to the fact that Wolf Man’s father would sometimes threaten to eat him up for fun; which is a tendency he termed as ‘affectionate abuse’ especially on the part of male relatives.

The Rational Irrationality of Dreams

Another insight of Freud from his unpublished paper Dreams in Folklore (1909) comes when he equates the neurosis found in myths (and, by extension in folk and fairy tales) with that neurosis (he) discovered in individual minds. Further on in the book, both Freud and his collaborator, the classicist and mythologist, Ernst Oppenheim, reveal that in analyzing the stories of folklore gathered from the masses the method of employing the same language as the one used by Freud to decipher dreams yielded successful results. This language is of course the one long known to the poets and philosophers as they have been interpreting human experience (which is the same task the fairytale sets itself to do, albeit in a manner much less sophisticated in form and content as it is meant to cater to the populace-and what make them so irresistible to children). This is what Erich Fromm in the book entitled The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to Understanding Dreams, Myths, Fairytales (1961) calls the ‘symbolic language’ which is when an inner experience (that is inexpressible in ordinary language) is rendered as a sensory experience (one that can be communicated with words) using the language of symbols. These objects of implied, latent, oblique, elliptical and psychoanalytically fetishistic meanings abound in the fairy tale just as they do in the dream. When Fromm tells us that ‘there is no ‘as if’ in the fairy tale’, he means exactly what the child desiring to be found back in his home knows he (his desire) means: the fairy tale is the dream come true; it is the time-less, space-less zone where transgression is not only permitted but also encouraged so that freedom (from the lost self) may be found. There is only one fact that can accommodate this fantasy, only one plane where the sweet sensation of fulfillment is allowed and only one truth which is only available in fiction, for it survives in the spaces between the two.

This ‘only one’ is of course the fairytale-ish realms of dreams (notice how natural the adjective here sounds). Dreams are the most natural element of fairy tales and those that make the unnatural seem part of the structure, so well are they stitched into the simplistic plot. The defamiliarizing quality possessed by the best tales is what makes them mirrors that reflect our most precious and private dreams. Both fairy tales as well as the dream use the apparatus of symbolic language to veil the most shocking truths about ourselves as individuals possessing desires that should never see the light of day, but are nonetheless revealed in the dusky aura of these liminal spaces which occupy the individual (dream) and collective (myths, tales) unconscious. Sleep functions as the veil beyond whose opaque walls the dangerous process of wish-fulfillment takes place. For if we could remember all that we wished for, what would we dream? And in the absence of dreams which would be followed by the redundancy of fairytales, where would the forgotten language be used? Just like Sleeping Beauty’s destiny is fulfilled by the overcoming of the curse of the ‘sleep of death’, sleep as a trope in stories is exploited as a means to a desirable end i.e. to our re-birth as acceptable, even celebrated members of our family/society. It is the continual falling asleep of Snow White (who is every time only mistaken dead by the dwarfs) that enables her wicked stepmother to be emptied out of her evil tricks. The literal transfiguration that takes place via the ‘function of sleep’ which is to invite dreams that reveal the innermost essence of a character and which in turn enacts as the bearer of that latent truth that is to be extracted out of the fairy tale-work or its interpretation.

Hence, believing in fairy tales as we might in our own dreams means to accept that the reality of our lives is not only stranger than fiction, but it is also disguised through the liberating guise of that which we like to think of as fiction’s fabrications.

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