No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock - Marina Warner, Farrar Straus and Giroux
No Go the Bogeyman is a disquisition on the emotion of fear, from a point of view at the intersection of psychology with folklore and mythology. I might almost have said it's psychoanalytic, but that would be misleading, since Warner is no fan of Freud -- she thinks his storytelling is much too limiting, too culturally blinkered. She does find something of value in some later psychoanalytic writers, such as Lacan, but picks and chooses among their ideas. Nonetheless, what else to call the practice of disinterring the hidden themes of stories, finding in them concerns with food and death, conflict between parents and children, etc.? This practice may predate Freud, but not by much.

What I find distinctive about Warner's approach is her concern with the cultural setting of stories, which does vary over time. I haven't read many other books of this sort which so clearly recognize that, although some psychological needs are universal, a lot depends on both the physical conditions of life and the culture which has developed over time. She is certainly very interested in the manifestations of her themes in the present day; it is appropriate that she spends a lot of time talking about other times and places, to show by contrast how things we might take for granted in fact are recent developments.

Warner's psychological approach also dictates that she discusses authored and anonymous texts, high, low, and oral art forms, all together. Again, she does not neglect to consider the social conditions under which her sources were produced when interpreting them. Since she does not want to neglect the experiences of that very large section of humanity whose words didn't get into print until very recently, folklore, lullabys, and other oral literature provide valuable sources, though not always easy to interpret.

Nonetheless, I found this a frustrating book. Its subject matter is sprawling, and although Warner tries her best to tie it all together (for instance, the last two chapters, about the relationship of racism and jokes, make reference to cannibalism and eating, subjects that recur throughout the book; they would otherwise seem more out of place than they do), the end result doesn't entirely cohere. The work is full of analyses and speckled with fine insights, but it's hard to say what the overall argument would be. Another, rather minor, flaw is that Warner unfortunately betrays her utter ignorance of biology and natural history whenever her discussion touches on them.