Freud and the Beanstalk

December 3, 2007

A story is told of Alfred Adler, one of Freud’s early followers, who once interviewed a prospective patient at great length, taking a detailed family history, and getting as elaborate an account as possible of what the man was suffering from. At the end of the consultation, Adler asked the man, “What would you do if you were cured?” The man answered. Adler replied, “Well, go and do it then.” That was the treatment. As in Jack and the Beanstalk, and in many fairy stories, there is a serious problem and a piece of magic; this magic makes strange things possible. The magic is there to show how poor our sense of possibility always is. Jack’s beans make him full of beans; they make his world huge. And they show him, as a taste of things to come – living happily ever after with a beautiful princess – that very small things can get bigger and lead you into unexpected and unusually satisfying places. Small boys are not Freudians, but they know that they have their own beanstalk, and that it takes them away from life at home.

So begins Adam Phillips‘ psychoanalytic interpretation of Jack and the Beanstalk in Saturday’s Guardian. He goes on to say

The story says that being sensible only gets you sensible things. And whatever else growing up is, it is an initiation into the sensible.

And the Freudian reading of the fairy tale evolves into a fascinating essay on how our desires and our sense of possibility (known to us as wishes when we are children) are turned into sensible options as adults and invariably wished away rather than acted upon.