The Recovery of Empathy in a Folktale

A wonderful example of empathy and its absence is documented in one of the fairy tales (Märchen) of the collection edited by the Grimm Brothers. “The Story of the Youth Who Set Out to Learn Fear” is about a youth – the classic simpleton of the folktale – who tries to learn what shuddering is (i.e., fear in the sense of “goose flesh”). The hero-simpleton tries so hard to feel fear that he is effectively defended against all feelings. He has no feelings, not even fear. He is insensitive to others’ feelings in the everyday sense. Thus, he lacks empathy and the corresponding aspects of his being human (humanness). He is also ontologically cut off from the community of fellow travelers who share feelings empathically and on the basis of which life matters to them (and him). This deficiency occasions a misunderstanding in the narrative with the sacristan at the local church, and the youth throws the latter down the stairs, resulting in the youth’s disgrace and banishment. As in all classic folktales, the hero goes forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveler on the road of life, which is the beginning of his ontological adventures to recover his feelings and become a complete human being.

For those interested, here is further detail on the story itself.  Märchen von Einem der auzog das Fürchten zu lernen,  translated as “The story of the youth who went forth to learn what fear was” in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tale, (1814/17), ed. W. Grimm and J. Grimm, tr. M. Hunt and J. Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972: 29f. “Grüseln” means literally “to shudder” or “get the creeps,” “goose bumps,” a classic physical expression of fear. In the Anthropology (1797: §16; 33; 154), Kant calls out “The thrill that comes over us at the mere idea of the sublime and the gooseflesh [grüseln] with which fairy tales put children to bed late at night are vital sensations; they permeate the body so far as there is life in it.” The point is, anyone lacking such an experience, as depicted in the Märchen, is hardly alive, is an emotional zombie.  Bruno Bettelheim does not call out the link with empathy in his treatment of this folktale in his The Uses of Enchantment ((1975) New York: Alfred Knopf: 280-82); though, as I recall, Professor Bettelheim did make the connection in classroom discussion that I attended at the University of Chicago in the Spring of 1975. On the relevance of folktales to philosophy see, L. Agosta. (1978). “Kant’s treasure hard-to-attain,” Kant-Studien, Vol. 69, No. 4, 1978: 422-443; and also L. Agosta. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97. Meanwhile….

The point is that empathy is not an obscure capability that requires elaborate technology to make it visible, as when researchers deploy a functional magnetic resonance imaging apparatus (fMRI) to correlate mirror neurons (though we can learn from the latter too). Rather empathy hides in plain view. This folktale, this Märchen, is in fact a ghost story, to be told on dark, windy autumn nights. The empathy of the audience is aroused by constellating fearful images of the living dead. This makes for a series of humorous encounters with ghouls and haunted castles as the youth sets about trying to learn shuddering – compulsively saying “I wish I could shudder,” having no idea what it means. The hero performs many brave deeds instead – as he is literally not sensible enough to grasp the distinction “fear” and recognize when he should be afraid. The ghost story provides a framework for images of the disintegration and fragmentation of the self, including literal ghoulish images of bowling with detached heads and a corpse that rises from the dead because the youth gets into bed with it to warm it up – a scenario quite creepy – against which the youth is firmly defended by his complete lack of feeling. None of these images and events matter to him in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. He is surrounded by ghouls and living corpses but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an affective zombie, emotionally dead. Without empathy, the individual is emotionally cut-off, i.e., dead.

The subtext of the story is that the individual cannot recover his humanity on his own. He requires the participation of another – and a relationship with the other – to restore the being human (humanness) of his feelings – and to teach him how to shudder. Having raised the curse on the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, the hero finally stops trying to shudder. Only then is he overcome by shuddering at the first opportune occasion. On the morning after his wedding night – his new wife teaches him shuddering – no, this is not going where you think – she teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo – she throws bowl of cold water filled with gold fish on him with the flipping gold fish included – he wakes up exclaiming that “Ach, yah, now finally I know shuddering!” Now he is finally a whole, enriched, and complete human being. Here is the original essay – caution the word “emapthy” does not occur in this essay. However, I suggest that empathy is what immediately underlies the capacity for feeling that forms the pivotal challenge faced by the protagonist in the folktale. For more details see –


Categories: autism, Einfühlung, Emotions, Empathy, Hermeneutics, Psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, Self, talk therapy

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