Jungian Puer Aeternus & US Presidents
American Presidents as Puers
Eugene Johnson wrote about President Trump, as the commensurate “puer aeternus, ” a Jungian term for men who never grow up. It is Latin for ‘Eternal Youth.” Having studied some of these topics, I decided to investigate more about this phenomenon. Frankly, I think it is rather prevalent in the post-WWII culture as a whole, for a variety of reasons and while a case can be made for Trump being a Puer, looking back at recent US history, all presidents since Ronald Reagan, except perhaps Bush I, had absent fathers; and I’m not sure about Jimmy Carter & earlier.
This maybe something to review going through the horoscopes of great statesmen, American or not, whether it is a dominant theme in their biography.
The Jungian Puer
Puers, as we will refer to them from now on, had fathers who were partially or totally absent, sometimes they worked distances, long hours, abandoned the family or just died. Some were gone because of jobs, others because they could not deal with a shrewish wife and were themselves Puers who could not cope.
Whatever the reason, all Puers have inappropriately strong ties to the mother, either positive or negative. One famous example is Thomas A. Edison who is often cited on Mother’s Day as being a devoted son; we never hear any quotes from him on Father’s Day.1
Chances are that the Man-child Puer (also called the Peter Pan syndrome) sees no essential differentiation from his mother, and so they are clones of her, with no developed masculinity a psychological trait not just hormonal, and needs to be won by struggle, and taking a stand and overcoming inertia. They 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 and daring do like Evil Knievel, Navy Seals, Action Figures & Comic books to name just a few.
The Iacchus Myth
Jung got the term, “Puer Aeternus” from the Eleusinian mysteries ritual in Ancient Greek on Iacchus (German Iakchos) that was the epithet of the Greek god Dionysus. The Latin poet Ovid wrote about the ritual in his Metamorphoses (See below for the excerpt from Jung’s 1917 book).1
Jung latched onto that idea seeing from his own life crisis, how mothers have always tried to keep their sons in the nest, and how some sons have always had difficulty in getting free instead preferring the comforts of home rather the drudgery of married life. What remained for him a long puzzle, was why at the end of the War to End all Wars this became just an acute, and later chronic, problem.
A man who has a mother complex will always have to contend with his tendencies toward becoming a Puer Aeternus; it is an easy out, so as to understand the problem, Jung scientifically i.e. observationally, described it hoping that if he could document it, he could find a cure.
The Way of the Puer
Puers avoid maturity in a multitude of ways: alcoholism, tomcatting (Byron’s poem of Don Juan is a famous example, click to read it here or use the Cliff notes here ) or finding a mother substitute and using her now to solve their problems. The flip side of the Don Juan scenario, Jung found was homosexuality, which he was startled began to rise in Switzerland after the War. He noted that in this case, the heterosexual libido is too tied up with the mother, and sex with her is taboo, so he chooses someone who is psychologically acceptable.
The Puer problem became so acute, writes von Franz, that during WWII that when many “mother’s boys” found themselves violently ill, or even temporarily mad when called for duty. She goes on to write that the Jungian Institute was called on to screen for those applicants, and while it was very successful, it also led to few soldiers.
One memorable comment I read about the Puer is that they seek the perfect mother in every woman they meet, and are drawn to women who uphold their narcissistic self-image. Problem is that nothing stays the same and as she starts to require adoration, intimacy, and care, they find themselves at loss and in many situations in a divorce as they search for another woman who falls for their charm and wily ways. Once the new love is found, the old love becomes a shrewish hag, harsh and forbidding, that must be escaped. They give no thought to the children — their concerns are only for themselves.
Jung and von-Franz both comment that undeveloped Puers tend not to have children at all, and typically none that they raised, hence von Franz feels that this is part of the reason for the rise of the single mother. Jung felt that this was perhaps compensation for “overpopulation,” a natural impulse to scale down & depopulate as with the advent of science more and more people were living beyond childhood; Switzerland he noted, was “becoming crowded.”
But, it goes beyond that. Puers have a false individualism, that they are something special, and does not have to adapt like everyone else, because they have a hidden genius, and so on. In addition, there is an arrogant attitude toward other people due to both an inferiority complex and false feelings of superiority. Such people also 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 hair in the soup.”
The same with women, nice girls, lovely friends but…and so it goes.
The Bad Side of the Puer
For those women who do get entangled in the Puer trap, everything seems good. They are charming and often quite attractive, but there is a concealed sadistic streak lurking inside, called by Freud and Jung as the “shadow” that strikes out as he finds he needs to get out of that old entanglement and move on to new and better –less restrictive — conquests.
While their charm makes a great first impression, Puers ultimately cannot go the distance and intimate relationships require commitment and involvement — because they thrive on distance and image. So while before the “break up” they were loving, weak and yielding, afterward, they go to the opposite extreme and become “cruel and reckless” towards anyone in his path; there is no transition stage, no point that anyone knows not to cross. It just happens.
Now the Puer is cold, distant, and almost inhuman towards the old lover’s entreaties , wanting only to flee the situation. Jung wrote that they “kill the very factor in his life” that could have saved them & help tackle their problems, instead retreating back into a dreamlike cocoon. He suspected that True Puers do not want to grow up & separate themselves from Mommy but instead wanted to stay in a happy adolescence.
But there are many successful Puers, boys that did make the change. else there would be no Reagan nor Edison, or even Barack Obama, who admitted when he wrote “Songs to My father,” he never mentioned that his mother was dying of ovarian cancer or much of her at all in the book, as this strong independent woman did not exist instead prefering the fantasy father. Obviously for all of them, something changed.
Perhaps too this does sum up Trump, (see our post on his mother here), we can only speculate though he does have some of the telltale marks.
But what all of these men have in common is that they channeled this issue into a charming persona that masked their driving ambition and hard-headedness, and grew up. Jung himself was stunned how some just did the “work,” and others refused the drudgery of showing up, 2, shown in so many artists who wait for “inspiration” instead of working to get it.
Jungian psychology Marie-Louise von Franz in her book, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, writes that the “sublimation of the Puer syndrome” and working, though seemingly easy, is the only way out. Dr. Peter Milhado feels that may for everyone’s good as
the Puer’s willingness to begin anew, take risks, his spontaneity, potential creativity, childlikeness can be helpful, if he can harness this energy consciously and ethically. The Puer archetype carries the hope of the ever-present potential of beginning anew. We do not want to clip the wings of the Puer energy, for it can serve us all.
- The Problem of the Puer Aeternus by Marie-Louise von Franz. Inner City books, a Jungian imprint.
- Symbols of Transformation by Carl Jung
- Psychology of the Unconscious by Carl Jung, available freely on Google Books.