on fairytales, disappointment and risks

November 13, 2009

Why are fairytales are so compelling? Adam Phillips in the Guardian writes

If genius, as Sartre said, is the word we use for people who get themselves out of impossible situations, what is the word for people who find themselves in impossible situations, or even seek them out? And why are fairytales so compelling that we don’t think of them as stories from a particular place and time? The answer to the first question is “everybody”, but the answer to the second question is that these stories are sufficiently hospitable – suggestive enough, puzzling enough – so that virtually everybody who can read can make something of them.

And then in an insight that is as much about the world of work as it is about the world of families he suggests…

There is a formative period in everyone’s life when it begins to dawn on us that we can’t get everything we want from the family. The one thing the family cannot prepare you for is life outside the family. The quest is always to find out if there is a place elsewhere that has the something else you want. Each of these tales intimates in different ways that all the family can help you do is live inside the family. All quests are quests for pleasure. Just as all riddles reassure us that there is something important worth knowing. So inevitably each of these tales is at once a story about curiosity, about how the miller’s daughter, the princess, the hare, and the boy find out something they need to know; but also a story that only works by making us curious about curiosity.

And of course he’s also writing about disappointment – and how difficult it is to do things differently – to stop what was working in the service of risking what might (or might not). How can we risk doing something differently if there is no guarantee of pleasure or positive results? Sometimes doing what we’ve always done guarantees us the pleasure of familiarity even if it is ultimately disappointing.

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