November 7, 2011

"I hate to leave, I have to, though"

Consider the woods.  Lots of trees, of course. What else do you find in the woods?
  • Wolves
  • Owls
  • Bears
  • Possibly Dick Cheney hunting birds again with that damn gun
  • And, of course, cannibalistic old witches
Oh, one other thing:  in the words of Stephen Sondheim (who also provided the title for today's post), "the thing that makes it worth the journeying".  

What's that?

It's different for each of us, but in the end it's the same for all of us.

For George VI, it was learning how to be King of England when he had no inclination to be anybody's king.  During a world war.  With a speech impediment.  He couldn't hide and escape; he had to cope and deal; learn to "talk real good" so he could inspire the homeland over the airwaves.    That's deep in the woods.

For a long-time stay-at-home mother suddenly without a child to raise after the last one is married and gone, it's realizing that if she's going to be hired by anyone for any position she'll have to enroll at the community college and gain some computer skills.  

For a seventh-grader whose dad just got transferred from New Jersey to Arizona, it's summoning the guts to walk up the steps to the entrance of her new middle school; a school where the kids have all grown up together; where nobody knows her; where nobody has her kind of accent; where, she knows, she'll have to endure the blatant staring of the entire student body.  And she woke up with a zit.

So: maybe public speaking skills, maybe computer skills, maybe the guts to make friends.

How about with our little forest denizens Hansel and Gretel?  For the answers, I have turned to an amazing book: The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim.  I will paraphrase his interpretation of this highly symbolic story.

When you reached a certain stage of your childhood, you arrived at a shockingly distressing epiphany about your mom:

She isn't always going to give you what you want.

When you were an infant in your crib, all you had to do was cry, and who came running?  Mama.  Did she ever say "no"?  As if!  "What do you want?  Do you need a bottle?  A clean diaper?  To be rocked?  Tell mama!"

Then suddenly she's all "No, you can't have a cookie.  No, you can't watch TV.  No, you can't go with me."  Mama has become Isis - remember her from last month's Aida blog posts?  Here's the thing about Isis: she had two characteristic aspects:  benevolent, nurturing mother of the gods, and avenging punisher.

And when you first encounter your mother's dark aspect, we can be sure of one thing:

You will really, really, - no, really - wish things could go back to the way they used to be, when Mama was the source of constant gratification of all your wants and desires with no exceptions.  You've probably seen how a five-year-old child behaves when a new baby suddenly appears in the household.  He's crawling on hands and knees, talking baby-talk and probably stuffing a pacifier in his mouth.  This is the outward manifestation of a deep-seated urge to regress to infancy.

And some of us hang on to vestiges of this urge for the rest of our lives.

Bettelheim describes what he sees as the twin themes of Hansel and Gretel:  1) separation anxiety as children begin to face the world without being able to hide behind mother's skirts; and 2) the need to overcome "a primitive orality", or what is sometimes called an oral fixation.

The urge to suck at the nipple is so intrinsic to a child's nature that the need to achieve gratification via the mouth is powerful indeed.  Consider our fairy-tale heroes:
  • At the top of Act II in Humperdinck's opera, the children are doing a half-assed job of completing their latest chore; namely, picking strawberries to share with their parents for a meager dinner.  Yet they can't control themselves and snarf down the entire pailful.
  • When they encounter the notorious gingerbread house (in every production except Virginia Opera's!), do they knock on the door, introduce themselves, explain their difficulty and politely ask to nosh on a windowpane?  They do not.  Again: no self-control, giving new meaning to the stock phrase "eating one out of house and home".
Thus, they resemble every 18-year-old college student who returns home for the holidays with the "freshman 15", or the pounds amassed by eating a diet of Skittles and pizza.  Oh, and beer.  (Note: beer and skittles turn out to be an acceptable marriage of flavors...)

They resemble Denny McLain, who in 1968 became the last major league pitcher to win 30 games in one season.  McLain was fueled in part by his habit of drinking thirty Pepsi-Colas every day.

They resemble any schmo with a five pack a day habit, or who bites his fingernails.  (That one is my personal bugaboo...)

Did it ever occur to you that, traditional casting choices aside, the Mother and the Witch, are one and the same figure?  Nurturing mother and abusive witch: the two sides of Isis.  Bettelheim says the children need to emerge from the woods with mature, integrated personalities so they can recognize mother as the complex singer person she is in actuality.  

Bottom line:  we must embrace the symbolism of the tale and understand that the children have not literally killed a witch; rather, they have killed their childish urge to regress to a state of infancy, when life consisted of gratification and little else.  

In Grimm, the children discover the witch's horde of treasure and take it back home.  See what happened there?  They are no longer baby birds with their gaping open mouths waiting for the mother bird to provide the worms; they are earners, contributing to the household finances and wealth.

They're "out of the woods - and home before dark!"  (More Sondheim - it really is a good musical...)

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