Pearls of Wisdom
“To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
Puer Aeternus is the name of a god of antiquity. The words themselves come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and are there applied to the child-god in the Eleusinian mysteries. Ovid speaks of the child-god Iacchus, addressing him as puer aeternus and praising him in his role in these mysteries. In later times, the child-god was identified with Dionysus and the god Eros. He is the divine youth who is born in the night in this typical mother-cult mystery of Eleusis and who is a kind of redeemer. He is a god of vegetation and resurrection, the god of divine youth, corresponding to such oriental gods as Tammuz, Attis and Adonis. The title puer aeternus therefore means eternal youth, but we also use it sometimes to indicate a certain type of young man who has an outstanding mother complex and who therefore behaves in certain typical ways which I would like to characterize as follows. In general, the man who is identified with the archetype of the puer aeternus remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen or eighteen are continued into later life, coupled in most cases with too great a dependence on the mother.
This all leads to a form of neurosis which H.G. Baynes has described as the “provisional life,” that is, the strange attitude and feeling that one is not yet in real life. For the time being one is doing this or that, but whether it is a woman or a job, it is not yet what is really wanted, and there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about. If this attitude is prolonged, it means a constant inner refusal to commit oneself to the moment. With this there is often, to a smaller or greater extent, a saviour complex, or a Messiah complex, with the secret thought that one day one will be able to save the world; the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics, or art, or something else, will be found. This can go on so far as to be a typical pathological megalomania, or there may be minor traces of it in the idea that one’s time “has not yet come.” The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever. There is a terrific fear of being pinned down, of entering space and time completely, and of being the singular human being that one is. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out again. Every just-so situation is hell. At the same time, there is a highly symbolic fascination for dangerous sports – particularly flying and mountaineering – so as to get as high as possible, the symbolism being to get away from reality, from the earth, from ordinary life. If this type of complex is very pronounced, many such men die young in airplane crashes and mountaineering accidents.
In general, the positive quality of such youths is a certain kind of spirituality which comes from a relatively close contact with the unconscious. Many have the charm of youth and the stirring quality of a drink of champagne. Pueri aeterni are generally very agreeable to talk to. They usually have interesting things to talk about and have an invigorating effect upon one. They do not like conventional situations; they ask deep questions and go straight for the truth. Usually they are searching for genuine religion, a search that is typical of people in their late teens. Generally the youthful charm of the puer aeternus is prolonged through later stages of life, but there is another type of puer who does not display the charm of eternal youth, nor does the archetype of the diving youth shine through him. On the contrary, he lives in a continual sleepy daze, and that too is a typical adolescent characteristic: the sleepy, undisciplined, long-legged youth who merely hangs around, his mind wandering indiscriminately, so that sometimes one feels inclined to pour a bucket of cold water over his head. The sleepy daze is only an outer aspect, however, and if you can penetrate it, you will find that a lively fantasy life is being cherished within.
In Symbols of Transformation Jung spoke of one cure – work – and having said that he hesitated for a minute and thought, “Is it really as simple as all that? Is that just the one cure? Can I put it that way?” But work is the one disagreeable word which no puer aeternus likes to hear, and Jung came to the conclusion that it was the right answer. My experience also has been that if a man pulls out of this kind of youthful neurosis, then it is through work.
There are, however, some misunderstandings in this connection, for the puer aeternus can work, as can all primitives or people with a weak ego complex, when fascinated or in a state of great enthusiasm. Then he can work twenty-four hours at a stretch or even longer, until he breaks down, but what he cannot do is to work on a dreary, rainy morning when work is boring and one has to kick oneself into it; that is the one thing the puer aeternus usually cannot manage and will use any kind of excuse to avoid.
Nuggets of Dirt
Cory Ian Shafer