Peter Pan, Wordsworth, the Mother Complex and Childhood Creativity
This article has been inspired by a recent one by David Price entitled ‘My Life as an Eternal Boy’. He is referring to a psychological syndrome known by Jungians as puer aeternus, perhaps the best known literary example of which is Peter Pan — Price actually uses that as one of his five tags. We are talking about an eternal youth, a boy who refuses to grow up in a psychological sense, “men who remain boyish and unadapted to the practical strictures of life in the world as it is”.
I am very interested in Jungian psychology, am familiar with the puer aeternus issue, having had some struggles with it myself, and my purpose here is to offer my own perspective on it. This is a link to Price’s article. I’ll summarise its content here in order to extract the points most relevant to my train of thought.
The central question is whether being a puer aeternus is a psychological problem or not. Price accepts that he has “all the earmarks of this kind of person”, and that “I’m just made that way… I can’t change. I’m not going to try”. He believes that, even though it may appear to be a problem — at least in the eyes of most Jungians — it is in reality positive, beneficial, even what the world needs. On that theme he begins by quoting the post-Jungian analyst and writer James Hillman: “(the symptoms and neurotic claims of the psyche) are asking for inspiration, for long distance vision, for ascending Eros, for vivification and intensification (not relaxation), for radicality, transcendence, and meaning — in short the psyche has spiritual needs, which the puer part of us can fulfil”.
Other Jungians think differently; he quotes Marie-Louise von Franz who says that “they should just stop dreaming, get a job and settle down into a regular responsible life”. Price then refers to Hillman again who “says the opposite, that their dreams and inspirations are needed by the world. He also says that if they stop imagining and creating, something essential in them will die. The world will have killed their gift”.
Price continues: “In my childhood, I had examples of men who had given up their dreams as they grew up… But I’m preoccupied, is the way I’d say it, by inspiring ideas, images and language. Looking around, it seems to me the world could use a bit more vision, more beauty, more careful looking”. He therefore says: “Let there be more Puers, more Peter Pans, more poets and artists, more eccentrics obsessed with beauty. We need to find our way out of this meaningless desert”. He then concludes by quoting Aldous Huxley: “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm”.
I found what Price was saying very interesting. I have read many of his articles, and am very impressed by the depth of his thinking, his commitment to his art and creativity. I am very familiar with the puer aeternus concept, but have never once suspected that he might consider himself one. On the contrary, he seems very much like a mature adult, deeply connected to his vision and purpose. I therefore responded: “Interesting. I think it’s important to distinguish between the puer aeternus in the Marie-Louise von Franz sense, and someone who, in Wordsworth’s terminology, has managed to escape the ‘shades of the prison house’, and retain their connection to their soul, which is their birthright. From your other writings about art and creativity, I have taken you to be the latter type. But of course, only you can know about your own soul”. (I’ll return to the Wordsworth reference below.)
Price gave my response 34 claps, which seemed a very large number for such a brief and simple comment. I assumed therefore that I had struck some kind of chord with him. He replied: “I don’t actually feel comfortable in any description of type, Graham, but I do feel what is described as ‘eternally youthful’ in my interests. I’m surprised when my body doesn’t always agree”.
Then someone else on Medium, JulianGiulio Nhorteo Batedo, picked up on my comment, and added his own response, which also viewed the puer as having a positive aspect. This included: “the archetype itself can be more healthy or unhealthy or inactive depending… Healthy Puer or yang is real aliveness…People interested in David’s essays I would suggest have a healthy puer aspect, a needing to break free from the meaningless and castration of the spirit…”
This persuaded me that it would be worth the effort to write a full article on this theme, hopefully to shed some light on this important issue, since I have a somewhat different perspective. I have a personal interest because in my time I have suffered greatly because of puer related issues, but managed to work my way through them.
Before I start, let me say that my intention is a general discussion of the puer aeternus theme. Inevitably, however, there will also be some reference to the psyche of David Price. It may appear, therefore, that I am seeking to offer him some kind of therapy. He has not asked for this, so let me make it clear that this is not my intention. He has, however, been happy to reveal some previously unknown personal aspects of himself in his article, so I’m hoping that he will appreciate mine in the spirit in which it is intended.
The puer aeternus syndrome is one particular category within a larger group known in psychotherapy as a mother complex. The classic text on this theme is by Marie-Louise von Franz¹, as referred to by Price above. Her subtitle is A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood. Here are some of her key statements, for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with the subject matter:
- She says the title is used “to indicate a certain type of young man who has an outstanding mother complex and who therefore behaves in certain typical ways”. He “remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen to eighteen are continued into later life, coupled in most cases with too great a dependence on the mother”.
- She calls one variety of the complex Don Juanism, in which “the image of a mother — the image of the perfect woman who will give everything to a man and who is without any shortcomings — is sought in every woman. He is looking for a mother goddess, so that each time he is fascinated by a woman he has later to discover that she is an ordinary human being. Having lived with her sexually, the whole fascination vanishes and he turns away disappointed… He eternally longs for the maternal woman who will enfold him in her arms and satisfy his every need”.
- “Generally, great difficulty is experienced in adaptation to the social situation. In some cases, there is a kind of asocial individualism: being something special, one has no need to adapt, for that would be impossible for such a hidden genius”.
- “Such people usually have great difficulty in finding the right kind of job, for whatever they find is never quite right or quite what they wanted”. “There is always a ‘but’…
- “This all leads to a form of neurosis described as the ‘provisional life’… there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about… a constant inner refusal to commit oneself to the moment”.
- “Accompanying this neurosis is often, to a smaller or greater extent, a saviour or Messiah complex, with the secret thought that one day one will be able to save the world; that the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics, or art, or something else, will be found. This can progress to 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 situation dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatsoever. There is a terrific fear of being pinned down”.
To balance all this negativity, she says that there is a positive quality to the syndrome, which is “a certain kind of spirituality… Many have the charm of youth… (They are) very agreeable to talk with; they usually have interesting subjects to talk about and have an invigorating effect upon the listener; 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 for people in their late teens. Usually the youthful charm of the puer aeternus is prolonged through later stages of life”.
Even though she uses the word ‘positive’ here, one suspects that von Franz does not believe that these features indicate genuine psychological health and maturity, rather that they disguise the underlying problem, even though they may be appealing to others. In contrast to this apparent positivity, however, there is another type who “does not display the charm of eternal youth… On the contrary, he lives in a continual sleepy daze… 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”.
She agrees with Jung that the cure for this problem is work. She wonders whether the solution can really be that simple, but then says, “work is the one disagreeable word which no puer aeternus likes to hear… It is through work that a man can pull out of this kind of youthful neurosis”. She notes that if “fascinated or in a state of great enthusiasm, he can work twenty-four hours at a stretch or even longer… 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… he will use any kind of excuse to avoid this”².
The publisher’s material on the back cover sums up von Franz’s understanding by saying that she “shows how the puer aeternus or the puella aeterna can thwart self-actualization and doom us to both unrealistic adolescent fantasies and provisional living. Once understood, this powerful inner force can release energy, creativity and personal awareness in every individual”.
I’ll make a couple of observations about Price’s position, which are not intended to be critical. He says that he has all the earmarks of a puer aeternus but that “I’m just made that way… I can’t change. I’m not going to try”. This would appear to be a statement typical of those determined not to grow up, Peter Pan figures; they simply declare that this is impossible. I don’t know precisely what Price thinks is preventing him from changing: is it genes, psychological inheritance, innate nature? I also don’t know whether he thinks that what is true of him applies to others. If, however, our psychological make-up is an innate given, he is denying the validity of many forms of psychotherapy, and assuming the pointlessness of trying to ‘work on oneself’. Many, many thousands of people all over the globe are engaged in therapy of this type. What would be the point if it is impossible to change one’s ‘innate’ personality?
Instead, Price declares his puer nature to be a positive benefit. He rejects von Franz’s solution of mundane work (“they should just stop dreaming, get a job and settle down into a regular responsible life”), saying “in my childhood, I had examples of men who had given up their dreams as they grew up… But I’m preoccupied, is the way I’d say it, by inspiring ideas, images and language”. He here seems to be identifying himself with what von Franz calls the positive quality of the syndrome: the spirituality, the charm of youth, the interesting subjects they talk about, the deep questions, the search for genuine religion, the passion for creativity. As she says: “Usually the youthful charm of the puer aeternus is prolonged through later stages of life”.
At this point I’d like to introduce into the discussion William Wordsworth’s poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. In it he writes as an adult who is bitterly regretting his loss of what he had as a child. At that time nature had a divine aspect to it: “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream — the earth, and every common sight to me did seem — apparelled in celestial light — the glory and the freshness of a dream”. But “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”. He thinks that this intensified childhood vision has an unconscious connection to the soul, which is related to God “who is our home”, incarnating into a body. However, “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”.
Why indeed would anyone want to leave this rapturous state where “Heaven lies about us in our infancy”? Yet the natural processes of life begin to take over: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy”. Is this an inevitable consequence of the soul gradually becoming more accustomed to being enclosed within the body? The puer aeternus/Peter Pan figure certainly hopes not: “Peter Pan never wants to grow because doing so means giving up the child’s life of imagination. If he grows up, he will gradually lose the ability to fly, will have to take on adult responsibilities, and will abandon the carefree joy of childhood”³.
Indeed so. Is it possible, however, that Peter Pan is missing out on something by refusing to grow up?
I’ll now outline the course of my own life in relationship to the puer aeternus issue. I am not a typical case. Far from refusing to grow up, and seeking to remain in the paradise of childhood, I was desperate to grow up, but struggled to achieve this, not understanding that I was in the grip of an unconscious mother complex.
I take it as a given that there is a plan, a purpose to our lives, a good word for which is vocation which literally means a calling. I now have no doubt that my vocation was always to be a musician, in the same way that Price always understood that his was to be an artist. When I left school, however, I knew nothing about ideas like purpose and vocation, so that this did not occur to me. (My school was only interested in how many boys they could get into Oxford or Cambridge universities.) I therefore went to university to study French, and after that became a teacher.
It was while I was at that school that I discovered classical guitar. I became passionately interested in it, and spent just about every available minute practising. As von Franz said, if “fascinated or in a state of great enthusiasm, he can work twenty-four hours at a stretch or even longer”. I actually gave up teaching in order to devote myself to the possibility of becoming a professional classical guitarist, and went to music college in order to pursue this ambition.
About the same time I succumbed to what von Franz calls Don Juanism, although I did not repeat the mistake and this only happened with one woman. I did indeed project the image of a mother goddess onto her, “the image of the perfect woman who will give everything to a man and who is without any shortcomings… the maternal woman who will enfold him in her arms and satisfy his every need”. I can even name the goddess; it was Ceres, the bountiful goddess of the harvest, fertility and motherly relationships. She is depicted on the Tarot card known as the Empress.
As a psychotherapist would say, this woman was a very good hook for my projection. At some level I understood what was happening; I knew that something funny was going on, but at that time did not understand anything about psychology and the concept of projection, so allowed myself to fall into this relationship. Then, as von Franz would say, I was indeed very disappointed when I discovered that she was just an ordinary human being, for example that she could become very jealous. How could a goddess be like that?
Returning now to the ongoing music project, about this time I had a highly significant dream. People who are interested in dreams, who regularly record and try to understand them, talk about ‘big dreams’, which obviously means ones which stand out and are highly significant. In retrospect I would place this dream as one of the three biggest dreams of my entire life. At the time, however, I had no special interest in dreams, although I was beginning to become interested in psychology. Even though I did not understand its full meaning and implications at the time, I have never forgotten it.
In it I was Beethoven, and was a prisoner travelling on a bus in my home town. At a bus stop the door opens, and I decide to make a break for it. I am, however, pursued by what I believed to be the prison guard. (In what followed there was a strong hint that I was in need of spiritual awakening.) Although I was not even consciously aware that my musical aspirations at that time reached that high, the dream was informing me that I was secretly indulging in a grandiose fantasy. I found this critical message revealing and intriguing. It was also the beginning of a waking up to the power of dreams.
Music college did not work out, and I found myself unemployed. I therefore had to contemplate the possibility of work, the dreaded prospect of work, as von Franz might say. I did indeed end up in a very boring office job, which I had to kick myself into. This was not, however, a conscious attempt to work my way out of my mother complex, as von Franz would recommend, since at that time I did not know that I had one. It was rather something forced on me by life circumstances. I went to claim unemployment benefit, which could be refused if one turned down suitable offers of employment. At the interview the woman said, “with your qualifications you could be a civil servant”. I therefore felt that I had no choice but to apply for this boring job. As I said, life had forced me to make a start in dealing with my puer issue. Although I did not understand this at the time, I had done what was required to make a start.
After a couple of years, however, I was very fed up and depressed, thinking that life was pointless, a complete waste of time. This was certainly true of my own life. I therefore decided to embark upon a personal psychoanalysis, to try to understand myself better and resolve my problems. During this period I gained much deeper insight into the fact that the source of my problems was a strong mother complex. This process also triggered the badly needed spiritual awakening.
Some time later, guided by dreams and synchronicities, I reconnected with music, and decided to make a new start in that direction. About that time I saw the film Amadeus for the first time. This made a deep impression, since it seemed to have a strong synchronistic message for me. In it the mediocre composer Salieri is consumed by envy when confronted by the genius of Mozart. He spends all his time trying to understand him and his magic, to figure out how he achieves what he is doing. This proves impossible so that he ends up plotting to kill Mozart and try to take credit for his work. In the end, this is not necessary because Mozart dies of exhaustion. Salieri, however, ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
There was an obvious connection here with my Beethoven dream, and there was a strong message: don’t aim too high, be content with the musician that you are, or you may end up like Salieri. Wanting to be Beethoven or Mozart would seem to be a variation on what von Franz called the “saviour or Messiah complex”, with the secret thought that one day the last word in art will be found, that one is a “hidden genius”. I honestly didn’t know that I had such unconscious ambitions.
My own experiences have therefore led me to a conclusion different from that of David Price and James Hillman. I did have to grow up out of my mother complex with its puer aeternus features. This did not mean that I had to abandon my musical vocation; on the contrary, having grown up, I discovered it, and I believe that I never would have discovered it if I had not outgrown this complex. As Marie-Louise von Franz says: “Being ‘cured’ of being a puer does not imply being ‘cured of being an artist’… In the really great artist (I’m not saying I am one) there is always a puer at first, but it can go further… If a man ceases to be an artist when he ceases to be a puer, then he was never really an artist” (p42).
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Sigo Press, 1981
2. All the above material can be found in her first chapter.