Sunday, June 28, 2009

Death of a Puer Aeternus

Michael Jackson, aged c. 14 years
Reworked Introduction:

Viewing the statistics of this Still Point blog, this post here has proved to be by far the most popular since Blogger first introduced this function on their blog publishing service which, of course, is hosted by Google at subdomains of  Having seen the level of hits on this particular entry, I have decided to edit this post somewhat, given that it is so popular.  Also, when I originally wrote it, I certainly did not give adequate time to its composition, and merely tossed off my remarks somewhat randomly, and in re-reading it I felt that I did not do enough justice to Michael Jackson, although the subject of the post was primarily the puer archetype as described by Carl Gustave Jung, and it just so happened that Mr. Jackson passed away while I was occupied with the study of this subject.  This was a most uncanny occurrence as Mr Jackson, I believe, embodied this archetype to a large degree.  Hence, the post was never intended as a commentary on that great artist, but merely pointing him out as an example of one through whom this powerful archetype worked.  Hence, any reader expecting commentary on his work will be disappointed as I know singularly little about his achievements musically, though I had always liked some little of his vast output of songs. I am writing these comments on January 6th, 2011 while the original was dated June 28th, 2009.  I intend to leave the original largely the same, but to give it more shape by moving paragraphs about and by giving a somewhat more positive and balanced view of this great contemporary musical talent by way of illustration for the topic at hand.

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is an original model of a person, ideal example, or a prototype after which others are copied, patterned, or emulated; a symbol universally recognized by all.  In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality, or behaviour.  Jung was the first psychologist/psychiatrist to give it serious academic and clinical attention.  For him the contents of the collective unconscious are called archetypes. He also called them dominants, imagos, mythological or primordial images, and a few other names, but archetypes seems to have won out over these. An archetype is an unlearned tendency to experience things in a certain way. The Psychologist Dr.C.George Boeree puts it succinctly thus:

The archetype has no form of its own, but it acts as an "organizing principle" on the things we see or do. It works the way that instincts work in Freud's theory: At first, the baby just wants something to eat, without knowing what it wants. It has a rather indefinite yearning which, nevertheless, can be satisfied by some things and not by others. Later, with experience, the child begins to yearn for something more specific when it is hungry -- a bottle, a cookie, a broiled lobster, a slice of New York style pizza.  The archetype is like a black hole in space: You only know it’s there by how it draws matter and light to itself.  (See this link here: Boeree)
Other great archetypes are the Mother, the Father, the Anima, the Animus, the Persona, the Scapegoat and the Trickster. There are many more indeed. However, it is to the Archetype of the Puer Aeternus I wish to direct my attention, but first let us engage in a listtle history by way of background which hopefully will not be too tedious.

A Little Psychological History:

Freud was the great discoverer and populariser of the unconscious, and for him the goal of his therapy (or analysis) was making the unconscious conscious – a very rich goal indeed. However, Freud’s idea of the unconscious was that it was akin to a cesspit of our animal desires and a whole collection of our buried and suppressed and repressed experiences. The personal unconscious, in Freud’s delineation at least, was not and is not a very attractive reality. He noticed that we all act from unknown motives and reasons, and therapy involved the revelation of those hidden and secret motives. This meant that the patient had to be courageous in facing his/her real inner self. Anyway, these last several days have seen the deaths of two icons from the global entertainment industry, Farah Fawcett-Majors and Michael Jackson. Both represented and represent certain ideals of heroes and heroines in more popular culture. However, it’s to the demise of the second I wish to direct my thoughts here. In talking of the late great singer’s death, I wish to bring some of the insights from Freud and Jung to bear on the matter at hand. Oftentimes both Freud and Jung and their theories, and certainly their therapies, are avoided like the proverbial plague. Why? Well, they seek to cut right through to the heart of the matter. People prefer avoidance – self-knowledge is a weighty, and indeed frightening, thing. It is like a sun into which we dare not stare. In a previous post I alluded to the flight from self-knowledge at the heart of the wonderful play All My Sons by the equally brilliant Arthur Miller. Only the brave and/or the really desperate seek out psychotherapy in any of its incarnations.

Jung had been a great disciple and favoured heir to Freud’s intellectual and therapeutic endeavours.  However, their collaboration did not last very long and the younger man was to eventually break with older, his erstwhile mentor.  Jung carefully recorded his own dreams, fantasies, and visions, and drew, painted, and sculpted them as well. He found that his experiences tended to form themselves into persons, beginning with a wise old man and his companion, a little girl. The wise old man evolved, over a number of dreams, into a sort of spiritual guru. The little girl became "anima," the feminine soul, who served as his main medium of communication with the deeper aspects of his unconscious. Then a leathery brown dwarf would show up, guarding the entrance to the unconscious. He was "the shadow," a primitive companion for Jung's ego. Jung dreamt that he and the dwarf killed a beautiful blond youth, whom he called Siegfried.  For Jung, this represented a warning about the dangers of the worship of glory and heroism which would soon cause so much sorrow all over Europe (that is the bloodshed of the First World War) -- and a warning about the dangers of some of his own tendencies towards hero-worship, of Sigmund Freud! 

In Jungian Psychology the archetypes have good and bad aspects, or to put it another way, they each have their positive and negative sides to them. The "positive" side of the Puer appears as the Divine Child who symbolizes newness, potential for growth, hope for the future, that is all that is associated say with the Christian myth, namely the birth of the Christ Child or Saviour.   He also foreshadows the hero that he sometimes becomes (e.g. Heracles).  However, there is a "negative" side to this archetype, namely that is the aspect of the personality embodied in the child-man who refuses to grow up and meet the challenges of life face on, waiting instead for his ship to come in and solve all his problems.  I encounter this occasionally at school – there are some adolescents who really do not want to grow up.  Indeed, I also know one or two adults who are still the Puer Aeternus, and perhaps unconsciously.  Many journalists and commentators have long referred to the late Michael Jackson as the Peter Pan of PopThere is in fact a syndrome named “The Peter Pan Syndrome,” though it is important to note that it has not yet been listed in the DSM and is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder.

The late great musician. performer and dancer Michael Jackson was someone who may have had Peter Pan Syndrome. From an early age, Jackson was very fond of Peter Pan, and even named his former home "Neverland Ranch".Now these characters which Jung found in his dreams he called the archetypes, and all of these characters, and many more besides, represented the unconscious itself  -  not the "little" personal unconscious that Freud made such a big deal out of, but a new collective unconscious of humanity itself, an unconscious that could contain all the dead, not just our personal ghosts. Jung began to see the mentally ill as people who are haunted by these ghosts, in an age where no one is supposed to even believe in them.  If we could only recapture our mythologies, we would understand these ghosts, become comfortable with the dead, and heal our mental illnesses.  However, it is to the world of archetypes that I wish to draw the reader’s attention.  I have listed four archetypes above, viz., Senex (wise old man), Puer Aeternus (Eternal Youth: Siegfried), the Shadow and the Anima or soul (little girl).  I wish now to talk about the Puer Aeternus, which Michael Jackson illustrated almost thoroughly.

The Puer Aeternus:

Here is what the Wiki defines this archetype to be:

Puer Aeternus is Latin for eternal boy, used in mythology to designate a child-god who is forever young; psychologically it refers to an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level, usually coupled with too great a dependence on the mother. The puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable. (See here: P.A.)
In Analytical Psychology (often called "Jungian Psychology") the Puer Aeternus is an example of what Jung called an archetype (forgive the repetition, but it is good to fix the concept more thoroughly in our minds) or one of the "primordial, structural elements of the human psyche". The shadow of the Puer is the Senex (Latin for "old man"), associated with the god Apollo -- disciplined, controlled, responsible, rational, ordered. Conversely, the shadow of the Senex is the Puer, related to Dionysus - unbounded instinct, disorder, intoxication, whimsy.

In looking back over the pictures of his career from when he was only 7 years old right up until the really recent ones I see a sad little boy, a smiling, sweet but scared and tormented little thing, looking out at me from behind a face which would become ever more and more a mask as he aged.  Michael changed his natural face into a mask – how sad.   However, I hasten to add that he never attempted to change the colour of his skin as he revealed on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1993 that he had a disease called Vitiligo, a skin disease that turned his skin white. In 1994, Michael Jackson’s dermatologist Dr.Arnold Klein testified that Mr Jackson was diagnosed with Vitiligo and Lupus in 1984. Though Lupus Erythematosus is a potentially lethal disease, luckily it was in remission in the singer. Both discoid Lupus Erythematosus and Vitiligo can produce loss of pigmentation in the skin. 

However, I have always found it sad that all we mortals, whether we are stars, kings or queens, great sports personages or mere "two by twos" (ordinary folk) are all subject to a lack of self-esteem.   We have only to think about other great tragic stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, both brilliant and tragic entertainers like Michael, who also both suffered from a severe lack of the same essential quality, to realise how prevalent this absence of self esteem is.  Parents have never been trained to be parents and they learn, hopefuly that is, from their mistakes.  Unfortunately, there are a great many parents who don't do so, and they do end up abusing their children in one form or another, and to a greater or lesser degree, some unconsciously doing so by repeating the errors of their own parents.  If one is to believe Michael's own account then he was indeed quite badly abused. 

And then, there must surely be a lack of self-esteem in any human who is considerably unhappy with his/her bodily appearance.  All those operations to find the right persona or mask.  I got to admit I was often shaken and disturbed (though in no pejorative sense of this last word) by that sad little girly voice pathetically calling to us from behind the facade.  All of this and more haunts our modern global popular culture which wishes to deny ageing and dying, but at its very peril – the refusal to face reality as it is, is an attempt to escape to “Never Land” which really does not exist at all.  Michael Jackson summed up in the trajectory of his career and in his sad, disturbed if beautiful personality the emptiness and the tawdriness of much of what poses as popular culture.  In most of this I do not fault this great tragic singer/performer, I point the finger directly at a money-driven musical industry where image, and money generated by such an image, matter more than the real human being behind the performer.  Whatever we may read about Mr Jackson's culpability in alleged crimes of child sex abuse is totally irrelevant here.  As an objective observer from afar, with more interest in psychology and in the analytical psychology of the great Carl Gustave Jung, I avoid like the plague commentators who dwell on these prurient and salacious matters without giving credence to the greatness and grandeur of the work of a brilliant entertainer, merely to grab the attention of the fouler and more uncouth members of our sadly money-and-image-besotted modern society. 

However, let's not get too cocky about ourselves either - we are all mortal beings, subject to many flaws as well as talents, and all of us are heirs to what Jung called the archetypes, in all their splendour and depravity, because they are, after all, what he called the "primordial, structural elements of the human psyche" which go back to our very origins and are consequently hardwired into our very genes.

I would like to finish this post with the balanced and respectful words of Barak Obama, because they are so fine and so sensitive:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama called Michael Jackson, the 50-year-old "King of Pop" who died suddenly on Thursday, a "spectacular performer" and a music icon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday.
Gibbs also said Obama believed some aspects of Jackson's life were "sad and tragic" and offered his condolences to the musician's family.
© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved.  See here: Reuters


Nora said...

Thank you for this piece. What especially interests me is the incredible fascination the public world-wide had for him. It's more than the music.

I have sometimes thought that he looked like a mime with his white face and make-up. He did suffer from vitiligo and lupus which caused him to lose pigmentation, but that doesn't explain the use of such white make-up. He wanted to control everything, including how he looked, because he had control of nothing as a child.

Another puer aspect: he worshipped his mother and had a terrible father.

Tim said...

Thank you, Metin, for your comments!

Phil said...

Very good & insightful comments about our shadowy natures and the difficulty we all have facing them. Seems that only tragedy or great upheaval creates in us a willingness to explore these areas. Mr. Jackson certainly seemed to struggle with many of the aspects of the Puer Aeternus. Thanks for bringing them to light.