Thursday, May 19, 2011

Eternal Youth

It is believed that archetype constellations exist in threes.  In the case of the perpetual adolescent we are going to assume the form of the Father (the Senex, or wise old man), the Mother, and the Son (puer, or youth).  Recognizing the constellation can mean the difference between being unconsciously under the power of an archetype and becoming more conscious of the reasons we are being drawn into the same pattern repeatedly, even when we are harmed in the process.  When we move to an awareness of the constellation, we are more likely to move through the process of individuation (Jung's term for personal development, which includes exploring the potential of the individual and one's connection to others) and gain some separation from a potentially dangerous pattern. 

To say that history repeats itself is to say that history is an expression of human nature.  I would add that the polarity is foundational to personal development.  In the simplest terms, puer is potential and senex is experience.  In terms of personal development, the key is to gain wisdom without losing potential.  At a broader societal level, puer is the element of chance and the embrace of change; senex is the accumulated wisdom of a culture as embodied in its institutions and laws.  In "the Birth of Tragedy", Nietzche described these forces as Apollonian and Dionysian.  As with all things Jungian, we are better to avoid becoming "one-sided" and seek a unity of opposites.

Thus, this archetype, when split from its constellation, deals more with arrested development than eternal youth.  We are drawn to the puer.  Why is the puer aeternus stalled in adolescence?  Marie-Louise von Franz, in her classic study of the puer aeternus as manifested in the Little Prince, argues that the male is a homosexual who is fixated on the mother.  We are all probably ready to move past this explanation, so I want to encourage readers to view the splitting of puer aeternus from a constellation with the senex and the mother-wife as traumatic, borne of violence.  As Greg Morgenson wrote, "Whenever a sacral form splits-- be it a theological dogma, a scientific theory, a politic of experience, or a social role-- it splits like an atom.  The imagination explodes.  Possibilities inflate the ego, and the puer flies."

The early articles in this volume examine the puer archetype from the perspective of psychotherapy or mental health.  Anodea Judith's "Culture on the Couch" argues that the planet is facing enormous problems, such as global warming , that will require a mature response, yet Western Civilization has thus far reacted as if stagnated in adolescence.  She asks "What if Western Civilization were a client that came in for analysis?"  Her answer is a fascinating case study of W.C., the culture seeking therapy.  Susan Rowland's "Puer and Hellmouth" examines the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of popular culture with a "positive ensouled mission": to heal the split between the senex and the puer.  Rinda West ("Puer inNature") analysis two polarities of the puer as responses to the natural world: the slacker, whose utilitarian approach to nature expresses itself in cynicism and gratuitous violence (examined here in John Gardner's novel Grendel); and the purist, expressed in isolation from human culture in the name of protecting nature (analyzed here in Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man).  Dustin Eaton's "Grounding Icarus" discusses the urge to suicide in brilliant artists; he focuses on the life and death of Kurt Cobain, lead singer and songwriter for the rock band Nirvana.

The volume next moves into an analysis of developmental issues related to the puer archetype.  John A. Gosling's "Protracted Adolescence" argues that the American collective psyche is developmentally retarded, characterized by a "fear of Other".  Luke Hockley's "Shaken, Not Stirred" analyzes Agent 007 as our contemporary culture's Peter Pan and ties this image to British culture's "shadow of Empire and World War II consciousness."  Darrell Dobson's "A Crown Must Be Earned Every Day" is a self-analysis of the role of aesthetic experience in the formation of personal identity.  Keith Polette's "Senx and Puer in the Classroom" claims that the American educational system, despite claims to encourage maturation, prevents students from becoming adults.

Finally, the volume address the puer archetype as it impacts broader cultural issues.  sally Porterfield's "The Puer as American Hero" discusses our fascination with "celebrity" as a media substitute for authentic heroism.  Susan Schwartz's "Little Lost Girl" looks to Sylvia Plath's life as an example of the puella woman who wants "to excel and to be loved but not to be known intimately."  Marita Delaney's "Provincials in Time" examines midlife passage among puer-possessed Americans.  Chaz Gormley's "The Marriage of the Puer Aeternus and Trickster Archetypes" investigates early trauma as the prime indicator of the creation of the puer personality.  Craig Chalquist's "Insanity by the Numbers, Knowings from the Ground" ties our culture's obsession with quantitative research to a childish insistence on factism, which is ultimately a denial of our humanity.

The essays in this volume acknowledge that we are inspired by archetypes to make heroic sacrifices and that we are also driven by archetypes toward mass mindedness.  It is important, Jung would say, for us to be critical of all the forces that shape our lives, whether these forces be science or myth.  It is equally important for us to understand the trauma that affects our times.
George H. Jenson's Introduction to "Perpetual Adolescence: Jungian Analyses of American Media, Literature, and Pop Culture";  State University of New York Press, 2009

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