Today, we become children for an evening. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I've just been to a new kind
of theatre. It's called The Revels. The Revels
began in Boston. Now it's spreading from one
American city to another. The format is close to
vaudeville. It's a loosely connected set of folk
themes: music, recitations, dance, and skits. They
all revolve around some ancient ceremonial theme --
the summer solstice or Christmas.
It's a lot of fun; but what arrests me is the way
it satisfies a craving. The belief that we can find
truth by utterly rational means has dealt us false.
We've laid every aspect of life under our
microscopes. Yet those microscopes never did offer
to show us what life is all about.
Now we see that we've lost a whole piece of
self-understanding by ignoring the old folk stories
and myths. You've all heard Joseph Campbell on that
theme. Well, he has good company. Child
psychologist Bruno Bettelheim tells about fairy
He says we can wring meaning from life only by
courageously struggling against what seem to be
overwhelming odds. This is the message that fairy
tales get across to children. Struggle is
unavoidable and intrinsic. Only if we don't shy
away -- only if we steadfastly meet unexpected and
unjust hardship -- will we overcome obstacles and
Modern children's stories avoid these problems. Yet
children badly need to hear, in symbolic form, how
to deal with them. Safe stories don't mention
death, aging, the limits to our existence, nor the
wish for eternal life. Fairy tales confront
children squarely with these parts of the basic
Robert Bly recently looked at the problem of male
isolation in our society. He reads us the Grimms'
fairy tale of Iron John. He explains its
clear, and very wise, instructions on how to turn a
boy into a man. We've grown too clever to hear the
succinct wisdom of this old fairy tale. Now, too
many American men are unfinished. We resort to
addiction, brutality, or retreat to push away the
pain of our incompleteness.
So the Revels audience dances out of the theatre
onto the greensward. We all sing about uniting our
separated souls -- of climbing the hills to pull
wild mountain thyme. We meet the healing folk
mythology for a moment, on a very visceral level.
It is a peculiar moment. It is a moment when we
acknowledge that, to be whole, we must serve the
mind with a full range of hearing. It is a moment
peculiar to any creative process. It is a moment
when we once again find truth by gazing at the
world with the eyes of our inner child.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bettelheim, B., The Uses of Enchantment: the
Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New
York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Bly, R., Iron John: A Book About Men.
Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Pub. Co., Inc.,
* The starred paragraphs are paraphrases from
Bettelheim, op. cit., p. 8.
For more on the Christmas Revels in Houston and
other cities, see the following website: http://www.revels.org/
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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