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 this phenomenon. Frankly, I think it is rather prevalent in the post-WWII culture as a whole, for a variety of reasons discussed at large in Professor Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, looking back at recent US history, many presidents since Ronald Reagan, except perhaps Bush I and obviously II, had absent fathers; and I’m not sure about Jimmy Carter & earlier.
Thinking about Kennedy, we know that JFK’s father was rarely around — he was bootlegger and then had a lifelong affair with Gloria Swanson and lived in Hollywood with her; Rose literally ran the Compound. LBJ never mentions a father, Nixon’s parentage is a mystery and Jimmy Carter just talked about “Miz Lillian.” FDR & Harry Truman mentions their fathers and Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president by his. Wilson’s father was a minister and married him, the first time & Teddy Roosevelt also discussed his life with this father. The others — Harding, Hoover, and Ike are unknown and that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.
Ronald Reagan and his running mate George Bush both mention their fathers. Reagan made lots of jokes about his father — how he did not like the tithing of the Catholic Church, ignoring Paul’s epistle to the Romans chapter 16; how he was a proud Irishman and how he drank too much. Reagan obviously had a father and enjoyed him. George H. Bush discussed how his father left Connecticut and his Wall Street firm to explore the oil fields of Texas and when he married Barbara, his father told him this was probably his “best decision.” Overall, when fathers were around their sons mentioned them good or bad, when they are were absent nothing was said. Bill Clinton had no father — he died before he was born. Barack Obama wrote a book “Songs to my Father” and a relationship that they never had. From that perspective, Donald Trump did have a relationship with his father, Fred so technically that excludes him from being a Puer.
Do father’s really matter?
Marie Louise von Franz wrote shortly before she died, the definitive book on the puer aeternus. The book is superb. She describes that puers, as we will refer to them from now on, all had fathers who were partially or totally absent, sometimes they worked distances, long hours, abandoned the family or just died. Many because of money constraints — too large a family for their resources — had multiple jobs or took jobs in remote regions because of hazardous pay. Of course some worked long hours or remote jobs on ships because they could not deal with a shrewish wife and themselves were a Puer who could not cope with her.
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 Day¹ even about him as a father.
Chances are that the Man-child Puer (also called the Peter Pan syndrome) sees no essential differentiation from his mother and himself and so they are clones of her, with no developed masculinity. This is not just a hormonal issue, though can be, it is a psychological trait where they are unable to defend themselves in the world at large, against other male competitors by taking on some struggle, and overcoming inertia. Instead, they always fear being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out, and let the crisis ride and come back when its over. To them, every situation that demands a reckoning 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. Iacchus (German Iakchos, Hebrew Jakob) 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).²
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 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. He postulated that 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. To discover a cure, Jung scientifically i.e. observationally, described the problem, figuring if you could describe it, you could then cure it. It did not end up being as simple as he thought, because he suffered so much from the syndrome himself and it was his associate Marie von Franz that actually found the panacea.
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. Von Franz feels that this is part of the reason for the rise of the single mother. Jung thought this was 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,” and he wrote this as early as 1915.
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, an unexplored talent and so on. In addition, there is an arrogant attitude toward other people because of 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. 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 and 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 they retreat 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 preferring the fantasy father. Obviously for all of them, something changed.
Typically what that is their ambition. They channeled their charming persona into a driving ambition and hid behind the mask. They found someone else to be the bad cop the “shadow” and they remained the image of the nice sweet puer but secretly did the “work,” though when and how was the new mystery. Was the shadow a Metaphosticlean barter? Were they burning the candle at both ends? Who knows, because when Puers decide to make a run for the roses, they leave no signs behind and tell no tales. It really is all a mystery, and to uncover their modus operandi would take a Sherlock Holmes hot on their trail.
Jungian psychology Marie-Louise von Franz in her book, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, writes that the “sublimation of the Puer syndrome” by working, through the dreaded details, seems easy, but is probably quite hard someone who is used to lifetime of Cliff-noting. But in the end she admonishes it is really the only way out. Dr. Peter Milhado writes
the Puer’s willingness to begin anew, take risks, his spontaneity, potential creativity, childlikeness can be helpful, especially 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.
And American history has shown it has.
- 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.