Bruno Bettelheim has had a bad press. He’s been pilloried for extending the influence of nurture much further than we’re comfortable with. He was even so unfashionable as to believe we could all be nurtured by exposure to stories. In The Uses of Enchantment he puts it like this:
Explaining to a child why a fairy tale is so captivating… destroys… the story’s enchantment. Adult interpretations rob the child of the opportunity… through repeated hearing and ruminating about the story, to cope successfully with a difficult situation. We grow, we find meaning in life and security in ourselves, by having understood and solved personal problems on our own, not by having them explained to us by others.
Not all stories are quite so permeable. The Iliad defined a coherent identity for disparate Greek peoples. It occluded regional variation and focused on what was common to all the peoples referred to variously as Achaians, Argives, or Danaans. To be a Greek meant to gasp and weep at performances of Homer. The story didn’t so much invite its audience on a voyage of discovery as sail them against their will over the wine-dark sea.
When it comes to nature versus nurture, the Iliad is ruthlessly pragmatic. It’s always possible things might have fallen out differently, but the deck is stacked in favour of the rich, the handsome, the young and the strong. The nobles take counsel among themselves and leave the ordinary men—whom Homer apologises for not having time to name individually—lurking among the long ships. When bandy-legged Thersites is allowed to speak up from the ranks, his rhetoric is just as good as his material betters’. He delivers a well-formed argument, denouncing Agamemnon’s sulking and demanding to be allowed to go home after nine years’ siege.
In the Iliad, people usually act first and worry about the consequences later. The Trojan general Hector’s comic timing is impeccable. Moments before committing his forces to battle with the proto-Greeks, he turns to Paris and says, ‘Of all the women in all the world, why did you have to make off with a married one, when her husband and brother-in-law are both notorious tough guys?’
Paris never quite explains himself. It must be his impetuous nature. Challenged to a duel by enraged husband Menelaus, Paris impetuously decides to run like Hades. Of course he can’t admit that’s what happened, and so the narrator assures us he was in fact teleported by Athena.
This is how the gods work in Homer. People are who they are and take their plans straight out of their nature. If there’s time, they might ignite a quick bullock as an offering. Yet the purpose of the sacrifice is to increase the chances of success in whatever undertaking they have already committed to. No one genuinely asks, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’—if they had, we would have been deprived of a thousand thrilling stories.
There is no one to dissuade us from fleeing Bettelheim’s daunting project of self-development through nurture, nothing to stop us taking shelter in primal Homeric nature. It’s possible to sit back and be ‘just as the good Lord made me’ now that our wars are largely privatised. Yet this same leisure gives us opportunities for the self-improvement Bettelheim urged. We don’t need to subscribe to his controversial theories of parenting to embrace the idea that we can understand ourselves better through engagement with stories, and begin to change for the better.
Jonathan Harnum, in his state-of-the-art survey of music practice, distinguishes the advanced player by the ability to identify much slighter errors. Beginners don’t notice that they’re doing anything wrong—dangerous in our culture where to offer someone feedback is tantamount to rudeness. Stories circumvent this by laying out not a stone tablet of rules but a spectrum of possibilities. They can help the reader towards self-correction without embarrassment on either side.
It would be unbearably presumptuous to write if the writer were assumed to have all the answers. In that case it would be hard to resist the temptation to telegraph them. Rather, the writer writes in the belief that we can nurture one another, sharing Bettelheim’s hope that everyone will grapple with the issues for themselves and his faith that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the imagination… Even more important, the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child that can structure personal daydreams and give better direction to life.
Edward Cooke’s next novella will be Lack City—coming soon, exclusively to Kindle.