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Wilson, S. (1982). Stephen Wilson on Hans Andersen's Nightingale. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 9:105-106.

(1982). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 9:105-106

Stephen Wilson on Hans Andersen's Nightingale

Stephen Wilson


My paper 'Hans Andersen's Nightingale', (Int. Rev. Psychoanal., 7: 483–6) was intended to show how the fairy tale could enrich our understanding of the psychoanalytical process. Naomi Stadlen's criticisms seem to be predicated on the notion that a single true meaning for the story exists, which I have altered in an unjustifiable way. It is interesting, therefore, to note that there are profound differences between the texts which we have used, and at certain key points they imply almost totally opposite meanings!

The gist of her argument is that the story provides no grounds for assuming that the Emperor achieved insight or moved significantly towards the depressive position. It is true that in her version (translated by E. C. Haugaard) the Emperor's reaction to the hallucinations which remind him of his past deeds is to shout, 'No, no, I don't remember! It isn't true!', but in my version (translated by R. P. Keigwin), this passage reads, 'I never realized that, ' said the Emperor, 'Music, music! Sound the great Chinese drum, ' he cried, 'To save me from hearing what they say!' (my italics). Clearly in this case, far from denying everything, the Emperor first becomes painfully aware of the significance of his past actions and it is only when this insight becomes unbearable that he seeks in desperation to blot out the voices. This, I think, can be viewed as an attempt to defend himself against depressive anxiety, for as Mrs Klein (1940) humanely noted:

Without partial and temporary denial of psychic reality the ego cannot bear the disaster by which it feels itself threatened when the depressive position is at its height.

Stadlen argues that at the end of the story the Emperor cannot be said to have moved to a depressive position because the nightingale only sings 'of the good and of the evil that happen around you' and does not require the Emperor to recognize his own culpability. I would prefer to think that since her singing is said to make him 'both gay and thoughtful' he has become more reflective about his own nature.

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