I suppose that a young person adores a story like Cinderella for the same reason that any of us enjoy a good story at any age. In childhood as in adulthood, we turn to stories not only for escape from the difficulties of our lives, but also to nourish our internal, psychic, emotional lives. We leave a good book or a good movie transformed by the experience. Aspects of ourselves that were hidden emerge, difficulties that have weighed upon us are lifted, and we often see our world and ourselves with new eyes. Isn’t this the charm of a good book or of cinema; its ability to fill us with enchantment?Understanding exactly how a story achieves this effect on us offers a glimpse into our internal workings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Erich Fromm took up this endeavor in a book called The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths. Like all of Fromm’s writings this book is for the curious, intelligent layperson. One does not need a degree in psychology or philosophy to read this book, it is written for the reader. The only requirement made by Fromm is that the reader be curious about the inner workings of her psyche –her emotional life.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, which was released last week, is the impetus for my thinking. Disney has built an empire on folk tales and legends, and Cinderella is at the heart of that empire. Said to be the most famous fairy tale, Cinderella, in one variation or another, has captivated children since ancient Egypt and China. A story with that kind of vitality, one that speaks to children despite the differences of culture and history, is fantastic. What exactly is it about this story that captivates children across the centuries?
The effect of a good story isn’t dependent on the medium. It is true that the experience of going into the theatre, sinking into the plush, velvet, seat as the lights dim and the fire begins to burn, all add to the psychological receptivity of the story. After all, isn’t this scene common to the bedtime story read by a parent, the gathering of the clan around the fire, the psychoanalyst’s couch, or the most intimate entrance into our internal world; the nocturnal dream? Cinema is a magical place which invites us into our emotive world, a place where we gather to stare into the flickering fire to catch a glimpse into our internal lives, projected onto the screen.
We know through the familiar experience of discussing a story, that each of us sees a different film. We bring something to the film that is unique to ourselves, and that changes throughout our lives. We are repeatedly drawn to a certain film at one point in our life, which is later forgotten. We seem to utilize certain stories to work thorough emotional questions that we face. When those emotional questions are worked through successfully we pass on to another questions, and the stories that resonate with those questions are then embraced.
I think one of the missteps that people make when thinking about dream interpretation is similar to a misstep that scholars take when talking about film interpretation. Dreams, like media, are often approached as if they hold a singular, objective meaning. The meaning of a dream is highly individual and contextual with the dreamer’s life. Fromm points out that this is true for the meaning of a story as well. When we consider the meaning of a story we must also consider its meaning for the individual. This is why we find little substance in studies that seek to discover if a movie or video game causes a certain reaction in audiences. The question is too broad, which is evident in the broad results that such studies typically produce.
Stories, like dreams, are written in a symbolic language. These symbols, grounded in our common human evolution, are primarily visual and audial. The cinema acts on this tradition of resonating with deep psychical symbolism through the eyes and the ears. These symbols have meaning in isolation as well as in the context of how and when they appear with other symbols. These symbols, taken as a whole constitute the story that we receive. Like the dream, a story exists on two levels. There is the conscious storyline that we understand though the narrative. This manifest storyline operates on a certain logic, and unfolds in a series of causal chains. Cinderella is living amongst the ashes of the fireplace because her stepmother and stepsisters are cruel to her. She is transformed into beautiful clothing because her fairy godmother appears. She wins the prince because she “has courage and is kind (Disney forces this moral upon us to the point of suspicion; it almost feels like Disney is defending itself with this cliché propaganda).
The manifest content of the story functions at the surface level. It is the story that critics discuss in their reviews, and about which most post-viewing conversation takes place between adults. But listen to children talk about a film and you will hear something different. Children’s conversation about a film are much closer to that of the psychoanalyst’s. The conversation here is not confined to the surface level, manifest content, but is often about a deeper, latent content.
The logic of the manifest content is different from the logic of the symbolic, emotional, latent content. Although the manifest story line of our dreams might seem illogical, they follow, as does the experience of a psychotic individual, an extremely logical thought process. What makes most dreams seem bizarre of fantastic is the premise and not the logic of the story. For example, the paranoid neurotic who goes to extreme measure to protect themselves from alien mind control is highly logical; the tinfoil cap blocks mind control waves, etc., but the premise of the belief, that is the starting point for the logical chain, is highly unusual.
We can see this with the depiction of dreams in film. It is a rare achievement that a filmmaker captures the essence of a dream in a movie. I can think of Federico Fellini’s dream sequences in 8 1/2 as a successful example. Typically the cliché depiction of dreams on film are merely reproductions of the surface level, manifest content of the dream world. This is why they miss the mark in conjuring up the dream experience. Fellini does not follow the logic of the manifest content in his dreams sequences, instead he is informed by the geometric or analogical reasoning of the deep, latent content of the dream. We are left, in 8 1/2, not with a logical experience, but rather, with a deep emotional shifting, not unlike the shifting that takes place when we awaken from a nocturnal dream.
Fromm tells us that “a dream unexamined is like a letter unopened.” We hold the same to be true for stories, myths, and films. But just as we must be literate to the language of the letter, Fromm tells us we must be literate to the language of the dream. This dream language is also the language of the latent content of the myth, story, and folktale. In fact, it is because of this underlying, symbolic significance that children and adults are captivated by these stories. The power of the myth lies within the fact that it speaks to us at a deep, unconscious, special level; a level which all humans share.
Taking rhetoric and semiotics as his starting point, Fromm begins his lesson on learning the forgotten language by describing the nature of meaning in symbols. Whereas Sigmund Freud’s dream analyses are often unconvincing and far-fetched (I often feel that Freud’s interpretations serve his theory, rather than serving the dreamer), Fromm’s method leaves us with a much more satisfying analysis. When we get the analysis right, that is, when we read the language of the dream and decode its meaning significantly, we are left with a sense of emotional release. I think this is evidence that we need to seek out when analyzing the meaning for us in a dream; does it produce a certain cathartic release in the dreamer? The same can be said for understanding the significance of a film or story.
Fromm tells us that visual and auditory symbols take on significance as conventional, accidental, or universal symbols. A conventional symbol, like the word table has learned meaning. The spoken or written word table is associated with the meaning through convention, that is learning. The word and meaning in conventional symbol is entirely arbitrary, it changes from language to language (be it table or テーブル).
Accidental symbols refers to the personal significance that something takes on to an individual. For example, Fromm talks about the meaning that the name of a certain city takes on for an individual that has had an experience with that city. It is obvious that at the accidental symbolic level, meaning shifts from person to person.
For Fromm, universal meaning “is one in which there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it represents.” The universal symbols are familiar to us all, they are the significance that words and images like fire or water take on. Fromm tells us,
“That a phenomenon of the physical world can be the adequate expression of an inner experience, that the world of things can be a symbol of the world of the mind, is not surprising. We all know that our bodies express our minds. Blood rushes to our heads when we are furious, it rushes away from them when we are afraid; our hearts bear more quickly when we are angry, and the whole body has a different tonus if we are happy from the one it has when we are sad. We express our moods by our facial expressions and our attitudes and feelings by movements and gestures so precise that others recognize them more accurately from our gestures than from our words. Indeed, the body is a symbol–and not an allegory–of the mind. Deeply and genuinely felt emotion, and even any genuinely felt thought, is expressed in out whole organism. In the case of the universal symbol. we find the same connection between mental an physical experience. Certain physical phenomena suggest by their very nature certain emotional and mental experiences, and we express emotional experiences in the language of physical experiences, that is to say, symbolically.”
The nature of the dream, or the fairytale, is analogical. That is, what is significant to us in the film is the meaningful analogy the we garner through both the symbolism of the story and our own, personal circumstances. When we examine the significance of a story or film, we do so in a way identical to our examining of a dream; meaning and significance is profoundly personal. However, there are some common universal themes and symbols that we can understand through what Fromm described in the universal symbols.
In The Forgotten Language Fromm does not address Cinderella. However, 24 years later Bruno Bettelheim would. I turn to Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales to illustrate Fromm’s universal meanings in Cinderella.
Bettelheim offers us a thorough, forty-something page analysis of the history and significance of the Cinderella tale. The Disney version of Cinderella is based upon an adaption written in 1697 by Charles Perrault. In Histoires ou contes du temps pasé (Stories of fairy tales from past times or Mother Goose Tales), we are given a sanitized version of Cinderella that was made polite for the ears of the court of Louis XIV of France. Absent is any of the morbid self-mutilation (step sisters cutting of their toes to make the slipper fit) or hints at incest (Cinderella struggling with the sexual expectations of her father) that we find in versions like that of the Brothers Grimm. After all, we are dealing here with a folk tale that was passed on orally, in many cultures, dating back to ancient Egypt and ancient China.
The universal themes that remain intact for audiences of the 2015, Disney version of Cinderella are described by Bettelheim include: Cinderella’s mistreatment as a consequence of sibling rivalry, Cinderella’s living among the ashes (thus her name Aschenputtel in the German tales), the loss of her loving “good” mother, the adjustment to a resentful and cruel “wicked” stepmother, the absence of her father as protector from the wicked mother, the rejection by her father for the stepmother, and nurturing of internal goodness and hope and the reappearance of the eternal “goodness” of the mother as the fairy godmother. Finally, a struggle significant to children approaching adolescence is the transition that will take place with the replacement of the father with another male figure.
These themes are universal symbols that all humans can identify with. For Fromm, as well as Bettelheim, this is why fairy tales resonate with children throughout the ages. On the surface level, the child enjoys a story about a girl who has lost her mother, is treated poorly by her stepmother and step siblings, is granted magical intervention, and triumphs by finding happiness with a prince. However, there is something of more significance taking place at an unconscious level. The story resonates with the child and is most compelling for reasons that they are not yet aware of.
Here we can appreciate Bettelheim’s discussion of Erik Erikson’s insights into the psychic life of children. Taking into consideration the psychical age at which fairy tales most appeal to children (Bettelheim points to around 4 through the adolescence), we can understand the significance of Cinderella more fully.
Erikson tells us that the earliest stage of emotional development centers around a sense of basic trust. “Basic trust is instilled in the child by the good mothering he experiences during the earliest period of his life. If all goes well, then, the child will have confidence in himself and in the world. The helpful animal or the [fairy god mother] is an image, embodiment, external representation of this basic trust. It is the heritage which a good mother confers on her child which will stay with him, and preserve and sustain him in direst distress.”
Here we see the significance of the loving mother’s impact on the child. Even in her absence, the love and nurturing that Cinderella’s mother provided before she died serves as a resource that survives within her young daughter. Cinderella is unaware, as is the child who attends to the tale, that this “good mother” (godmother) is the magic that exists within herself, a spirit that, when fostered and embraced, serves to provide us all with the courage and strength to persevere in the most difficult of circumstances. “Only being true to oneself, as Cinderella is, succeeds in the end.”
The importance of fantasy and fairy tale in the life of children is at least as important for emotional well-being as the creative, fantasy life is for the adult. Like Cinderella herself, the fairy tale nurtures a warm fire of enchantment within each of us, the fire of which, when stoked, can serve to keep us hopeful through the most challenging of life’s tragedies.