Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is a classic psychoanalytic examination of fairy tales and fables. The problem is that Bettelheim is perhaps too focused on Freudian interpretation, to the exclusion of alternative possibilities. Bettelheim was never formally trained in psychology. He was a philosopher, whose psychological training originated in his own psychoanalysis and self-education. His limited perspective resulted in one of the most spectacular pieces of popular misinformation in psychology, the idea that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. This misconception inflicted unnecessary pain on perhaps thousands of families.
But here I want to talk about both a smaller and a larger issue: hidden messages in children’s stories. My husband’s psychologist gave him a copy of Bettelheim’s explication of The Fisherman and the Jinny to read, and I’d like to offer an alternative to Bettelheim’s view. Not that a psychoanalytic interpretation is wrong per se, but it’s far from the only perspective.
Bettelheim’s psychoanalysis: pleasure principle vs. reality principle
First, let’s review the story itself. From Bettelheim:
A poor fisherman casts his net into the sea four times. First he catches a dead jackass, the second time a pitcher full of sand and mud. The third effort gains him less than the preceding ones: potsherds and broken glass. The fourth time around, the fisherman brings up a copper jar. As he opens it, a huge cloud emerges, which materializes into a giant Jinny (genie) that threatens to kill him, despite all the fisherman’s entreaties. The fisherman saves himself by his wits: he taunts the Jinny by doubting aloud that the huge Jinny could ever have fitted into such a small vessel; thus he induces the Jinny to return into the jar to prove it. Then the fisherman quickly caps and seals the jar and throws it back into the ocean.
The Jinny’s unreasonable anger against the fisherman springs from the length of its imprisonment.
As [the Jinny] sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’ But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waxed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay….’”
For Bettelheim, this reasoning is the reasoning of the abandoned child, dealing with separation anxiety. The irrational aspect demonstrates that this is not “adult morality” but childish, for according to Bettelheim, to an adult “the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him.” The point of the fairy tale is for the child to be able to put himself into the place of the Jinny and be safely angry at his parents for his separation anxiety, or to put himself into the place of the fisherman and deal with his anger.
Bettelheim’s Jinny represents immaturity, uncomfortable emotions, and the pleasure principle; the fisherman represents maturity, rationality, and the reality principle. The pleasure principle “drives us to gain immediate satisfaction of our wants or to seek violent revenge for our frustrations,” while the reality principle states “we must be willing to accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards.” According to Bettelheim, choosing the reality principle gains the fisherman success.
Bettelheim also points out that by identifying with the fisherman, who is small in comparison with the Jinny, the small child sees him- or herself as outwitting the larger Jinny/adult figure. As Bettelheim observes, “children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them.”
This level of interpretation is not a bad or wrong one, but it’s not the whole story; it’s what happens when you cast your net once. Let’s cast it a second time and see what comes up.
The fairy tale as an introduction to reality
I clearly remember the first encounter I had with this story, and my response was strongly negative toward the fisherman. While his life was threatened by the Jinny, his solution was poor: tricking the Jinny back into the jar and throwing him into the sea. This did nothing to address the horribly unfair situation of the Jinny, and seemed likewise thoughtless of future fishermen. In the Arabian Nights, the fisherman promises to build a home by the shore and warn other fisherman of the perils of copper jars they may pull up in their nets. But this is a short-term solution for a seemingly immortal creature. My childish solution, in the parameters of the fairy tale, was that the fisherman should take the jar to the nearest king or wizard for their help.
While the madness of the Jinny may safely allow a child to feel unacceptable anger, it’s not solely childish, irrational anger standing in opposition to the fisherman’s adult morality. If adult morality followed rational behavior most psychologists (and lawyers) would be out of work. And if the fisherman’s life were magically extended and he were trapped in a small, sensory-depriving container that barely held him, it’s unlikely his sanity would be preserved for long.
For me as a child, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny is not that we must “accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards,” but precisely the opposite. I found it very upsetting. Looking back as an adult, I can understand why, and I still don’t see the fairy-tale justice and reward-for-hard-work message Bettelheim finds in it. Here’s what I see:
- A poor fisherman’s efforts to feed himself and his family are frustrated as he tries four times to earn his living, and gets nothing for his pains but a chance to die.
- A Jinny is trapped for centuries in a copper jar, and driven mad by his frustration. Trapped back in the jar, he is thrown back in the sea, to look forward to more centuries of madness. The evolution of his anger for the next fisherman is not a pleasant thing to consider.
- Once he’s saved himself, the fisherman is not good about considering other people. Even if you take the version where he lives on the shore to warn other fisherman, he’s only there for his lifetime, and he knows the Jinny will be in his jar for centuries. Throwing the jar back is selfish, lacking concern for both future fishermen and the Jinny.
In other words, when one analyses behavior and its consequences for the characters, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny seems to be that sometimes nobody is happy, and the world is not fair. This is an important message, and one that is often overlooked by parents who want to (a) make their children happy and (b) entice them to good behavior by promises of rewards. As a child, when I read the Arabian Nights and was upset by this story, I was safely being introduced to difficult situations that I would encounter in real life. It was an opportunity to express the outrage in advance and learn how to deal with it.
The Jinny as daimon
Reading with adult eyes, I was struck by another interpretation. Finding myself identifying with the Jinny, and probably reminded because of the association of jinny/genie with genius, I saw the Jinny as what existential psychologist Rollo May called a creative daimon. Let’s cast our interpretive net a third time and see if this works.
May describes the daimonic as that which overwhelms us. Eros, anger, the desire for power, the desire to leave your mark on the world: all these things are the daimonic in us. When it is repressed and not integrated into an authentic person, it comes out violently and angrily. For May, the daimonic must be applied constructively or it will erupt destructively. Demonic possession is a culturally specific expression of violent eruption. Fear of the daimonic arises from the anxiety inherent in the creative process.
Every time a person creates—and this includes loving, taking a moral stance, and so forth—that person is undergoing an interactive process with the world. The world and the person are both changed. Anxiety is produced by the changes required by the process. There is also anxiety in the trust needed for the leap of faith before the act of creation, because the creator may be wrong in his choice or understanding or perspective; in other words, the creation may be a mistake.
So if we view the Jinny as the creative daimon, we see him as the repressed urge to leave our mark. The urge to love, to write, to paint, to change the world. The death threat to the fisherman is the anxiety posed by this urge. It’s no accident or mere plot point that the Jinny can change shape; the mutability of the genie is a metaphor for the change the creator undergoes in every work. Likewise, the immortality of the Jinny can be interpreted as the wish for the changes we effect in the world to persist beyond our lifetime, or beyond our immediate sphere of influence. The fisherman is the person in May’s third stage of development, the “ordinary” adult ego. He has passed through the stages of innocence and rebellion and learned responsibility but not courage; he conforms to the conventional and does not express his daimonic side. He has an opportunity to deal with his daimon, but chooses instead to bottle it up and throw it into the sea. And the daimon agrees to this, in effect, by going back into the bottle, in much the same way that many people bottle up their own creative urges.
The creative adult, in the fourth stage of development, has accepted her daimon and integrated it into her life. She understands both the thrownness of reality (the things we cannot change) and her control over it (her will and creative principle). She would find another way to grapple with the Jinny: perhaps giving it a different, safer target for its anger, or again, taking the closed jar to a wise person to seek help. Courage and responsibility not just for herself but for the next person are inherent in this state.
From this perspective, the message of the fairy tale is one I don’t like. It promotes the mediocre, non-threatening, non-integrated road which leads to the life of a selfish, poor fisherman. It tells the child to fear the mutable Jinny and his power. But the truth is that those who release the Jinny and pass through the fear of death and change, those will learn self-actualization and authenticity. Those, the Jinny will enrich for ever and ever.