CHAUTAUQUA — People live in darkness and light.
“The words we speak are saturated with metaphors drawn from the realms of light and dark”, said Maria Tatar, a teacher.
For a long time, she told an audience in the Amphitheater on Wednesday, as part of the theme “The world of the night” that she was afraid of the dark.
“And then one night, with the help of a flashlight I slipped into my brother’s room, I befriended the darkness,” Tatar noted, “And suddenly there was light. And yes, it was a little dark, but the portals magically materialized.
For years after that flashlight incident, Tatar went into dark forests with Hansel and Gretel, and made many other journeys with other characters in other books. So the light beam provided the ignition power, and it fueled his imagination. For Tatar it was a kind of rocket fuel. The bright letters banish her fear of the dark and many other things, she noted.
“Thus, reading may require candles, light bulbs and other sources of lighting,” Tatar said. “But paradoxically storytelling, at least oral storytelling, is an art that thrives at night and in darkness.”
She said that our primary fear of darkness, a breeding ground for monsters and bogeyman, can be managed by light.
“Light has become a conceptual metaphor for knowledge”, Tatar said. “The interplay of light and dark in our entertainment is what art historians call chiaroscuro – a technique that drives us. It creates melodrama and keeps us hooked to our stories and our screens. (and) visual storytelling.
Tatar is the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Folklore and Mythology, Emeritus, at Harvard University, where his research for four decades has focused on children’s literature, German literature, and folklore. , according to assembly.chq. org.
She noted that people are both storytellers and performers, engaged in what her students like to call hermeneutics or the art of decoding and understanding. At night, she added, darkness and sleep conspire to fuel the imagination, so when people wake up they are critical.
“Anthropologists tell us that many cultures prohibit telling stories during the day. But once the sun goes down, comes the moment of once upon a time, or other beginnings of stories,” she says.
Today, it’s common practice to elevate storytelling with metaphors that reflect the social origins of the practice, she said.
So light and dark are not always at war, she said. Light and dark can also be associated in kinship relationships, where each is invested with symbolic power. It strengthens rather than diminishes the opposite term, so light and dark support and need each other.
“So instead of framing the dialectic of light and dark in terms of good evil, innocence and sin, knowledge and ignorance, concepts can be charged with bi-directional energy, depending on the each other for richer and more productive forms of cultural energy, she added.
The website also said she was a senior member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, with an exploration of the dual power of darkness and light in folklore and fairy tales. Tatar is the author, editor and translator of numerous books on folklore and fairy tales, including The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales; Take their heads off! Fairy tales and childhood culture; The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales; The Annotated Brothers Grimm; The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen; Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood; The Annotated Peter Pan; The Annotated African American Folktales (edited with Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates); The most beautiful of all: Snow White and 21 tales of mothers and daughters; and, most recently, The Heroine with 1001 Faces, published in 2021 by Liveright, an imprint of WW Norton – the home of many Tatar edited and translated works.
She is also the author of Spellbound: Studies on Mesmerism and Literature and Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. For his work, Tatar has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Tatar earned an undergraduate degree from Denison University and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. In 1971, after completing her doctorate at Princeton University, Tatar joined the faculty at Harvard University, where she was granted tenure in 1978.