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Into the Wild and Puer Aeternus

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Nihil Loc
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Posted 05/03/08 - 9:31 PM:
Subject: Into the Wild and Puer Aeternus
Has anyone read Krakauer's book about the journey and death of Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild? It was recently made into a movie by actor/director Sean Penn who was fascinated with McCandless' story.

When I saw this movie I got a very weird feeling, a sort of desperation and nostalgic ache.

From reviewing some of the media sensation and public interest in this now fictional or idealized story, and considering my own response, I have come to the conclusion that McCandless has been mythologized in recognition of what Jung understood to be the Puer Aeternus archetype. Robert Bly, poet, also has written about the subject.

Puer Aeternus is latin for eternal boy and is often associated with J.M. Berry's Peter Pan, the boy who won't grow up. Marie-Louise von Franz, student of Jung and analytical psychologist, wrote an entire book about the subject. She sees the puer aternus in the life and literary work of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, ie. the Little Prince.

Check this out, if your interested:

Puer Aeternus

The Cult of Chris McCandless

If you have seen the movie Into the Wild, what is your opinion of Christian McCandless' death. Is there anything heroic behind his flight into the wild or was it senseless tragedy?

____________

What does the son do?
He turns away, louses courage,
goes outdoors to feed with wild things,
lives among dens and huts, eats distance and silence;
he grows long wings, enters the spiral, and ascends.


~Robert Bly
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Posted 05/04/08 - 4:30 PM:

I've seen the film and liked it, particularly the beautiful cinematography. Your ideas are interesting; I think what he did had mor resonance with a young American than a European. I feel the sense of a wilderness not to far away both in time and geographically is a feature of the American identity, the idea of 'returning' and communing with nature. There is, I believe, something that amounts to a tradition in American literature including writers like Whitman, Twain, Miller and even Kerouac which longs for this return and senses it is the only place where we can find a real sense of belonging. At the very least there is a tension in modern man; we don't feel quite at home in this world we have created, something appears wrong.

I also went through a similar phase to this young man; I travelled for two years in New Zealand and Australia. There was hitch hiking and farm work and living outdoors but nothing like the extremes he experienced. I too was running from a background that I refuted and I, like millions of other young men, could relate to his story and the 'myth' he was following. It was a myth because modern man cannot live totally isolated from society. Once you have reached the point where you wish to rebel already you are too much a product - even in reaction -of that society.

I think the answer, if there is an answer at all, is to live partially related to both nature and society. To be wholly identified with society is to be neurotic and to believe you belong somewhere wholly beyond it is to be mad.
libertygrl
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Posted 05/09/08 - 11:59 PM:

Nihil Loc wrote:
Check this out, if your interested:

Puer Aeternus

informative article, thanks for the link nihil. i've thought about this archetype a lot without knowing it had a name.

are we to imagine the puer aternus happy, like sisyphus?
Nihil Loc
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Posted 05/10/08 - 2:37 AM:

lib wrote:
are we to imagine the puer aternus happy, like sisyphus?


Do you prefer a happy sisyphus in line with Camus' suggestion?

wikipedia: sisyphus wrote:
According to the solar theory, Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day in the east and then sinks into the west.[5] Other scholars regard him as a personification of waves rising and falling, or of the treacherous sea.[5] The 1st-century BC Epicurean philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated, with the quest for power, in itself an "empty thing," being likened to rolling the boulder up the hill.[6] Welcker suggested that he symbolises the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge, and S. Reinach[7] that his punishment is based on a picture in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone Acrocorinthus, symbolic of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, sees Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but concludes "one must imagine Sisyphus happy" as "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."


libertygrl
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Posted 05/10/08 - 10:52 AM:

wikipedia wrote:
Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, sees Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but concludes "one must imagine Sisyphus happy" as "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

hi nihil,

i was reminded of camus' essay in reading the article on the puer aeternus. the above quote you selected from wikipedia is perfect to sum up the corollation.

Do you prefer a happy sisyphus in line with Camus' suggestion?

i see my mother as a strong embodiment of the puer (puella) aeternus archetype. to an extent, i feel sad for her because i know that childhood trauma is largely what drives her perpetual "struggle towards the heights". it is trauma of a profundity that she will perhaps never be able to fully acknowledge.

at the same time, i believe that people will ultimately do whatever they want to do, to the extent that they can. i think this is in line with what camus was suggesting. however, with camus' sisyphus archetype, there is an implied work ethic, an innate satisfaction derived from toil for its own sake - whereas with the puer aeternus, there is more of a "play" ethic implied: the eternal child at play. in that sense, sisyphus and the puer aeternus are polar opposites.

are we to imagine them both happy, then, sisyphus and the puer aeternus? i would suppose so.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 05/10/08 - 7:21 PM:

lib wrote:
with the puer aeternus, there is more of a "play" ethic implied: the eternal child at play. in that sense, Sisyphus and the puer aeternus are polar opposites.


Sisyphus' fate is punishment for his unwillingness to abide by certain moral constraints. Breaking the rules and tricking the Gods is more of a puer aeternus quality. Yet the repetitive and pointless toil of Sisyphus may characterize the necessary and widely understood life of the working man and woman. Perhaps Sisyphus represents a balance between the two -- though his is pinned down by reality of endless work, his toil tells us something of his spirit, drive and ambition, especially in light of what he has done to get himself punished.

Senex, latin for old man, is the usual word for the opposite of puer aeternus. Its ideal is adherence to the old forms and tradition, repetition until mastery, a certain etiquette, modesty or conservatism in character.

Just as there are happy and positive youths and oldies there is the other camp, and those in between.

JosefK
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Posted 05/12/08 - 11:00 AM:

Saw the movie, read part of the book on-line.

The only thing I could think about is how some parents f*uck-up their kids.
praxis
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Posted 05/12/08 - 12:42 PM:

"What I don't understand with all these books and movies, is why they don't tell the stories of the people who survive. The ones who have forged a life here?"

Maybe because the story plays into the belief that the divine is something else, something out of reach, and McCandless offers evidence to support that belief in his hubristic defiance of culture, civilization and nature.
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Posted 05/12/08 - 11:00 PM:

Praxis.



Here is the Ying/Yang of it, very simple, it plays to your heartstrings. In Hollywood, sadness = serious. It's the same for Rock and other popular music, if it's not sad or angry then it's not "serious".
praxis
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Posted 05/13/08 - 8:34 AM:

Hi K,

12,000 dead in a China earthquake is sad, far sadder than the McCandless story. Yet it's unlikely that a mythology will be build around that event. What's the difference? And I'll point out that the McCandless mythology existed years prior to the Hollywood filming.
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Posted 05/13/08 - 1:25 PM:

praxis wrote:
Hi K,

12,000 dead in a China earthquake is sad, far sadder than the McCandless story. Yet it's unlikely that a mythology will be build around that event. What's the difference? And I'll point out that the McCandless mythology existed years prior to the Hollywood filming.




Well, yea. Way sadder. But Hollywood has a hard time selling sad stories that happen overseas. It's also harder to humanize thousands instead of just one. You also, forget, who pays to go see movies, mostly teenagers. And they relate to McCandless far better than thousands of Chinese half-way around the world.

And look at the movies that all the critics go gaga over. It's always the sad or angry ones.

Cogitate on that and let me know what you think.

thanks for the notesmiling face
praxis
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Posted 05/14/08 - 5:39 PM:

Cogitate on that and let me know what you think.

As you wish, K, here goes...

JosefK wrote:
Hollywood has a hard time selling sad stories that happen overseas.

Uh, false.

It's also harder to humanize thousands instead of just one.

False.

You also, forget, who pays to go see movies, mostly teenagers. And they relate to McCandless far better than thousands of Chinese half-way around the world.

American teens may well relate better to McCandless than thousands of Chinese people but I don't see the particular relevance of pointing this out. Earthquakes are relevant to Americans, especially us Californians.

And look at the movies that all the critics go gaga over. It's always the sad or angry ones.

Relevance? And McCandless is not characterized as being sad or angry. From what I've seen he's characterized as being happy, adventurous, highly moral, and possessing a practice of abandonment. Qualities which indicate a spiritual inclination.

Apparently for some people the McCandless story inspires feelings which go beyond sympathy or pity.
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Posted 05/15/08 - 2:57 AM:

Posted May 14, 2008 - 04:39 PM:

#12
"Cogitate on that and let me know what you think.

As you wish, K, here goes...

JosefK wrote:
Hollywood has a hard time selling sad stories that happen overseas.

Uh, false.

It's also harder to humanize thousands instead of just one. False."

If you like we can start naming movies and see who comes up with more? There are exceptions, but I can name twenty to every one of yours.

Even in movies where thousands die, there is always the personalized story, no other way to do it.



"American teens may well relate better to McCandless than thousands of Chinese people but I don't see the particular relevance of pointing this out. Earthquakes are relevant to Americans, especially us Californians. "

Revelance....hmmmmm....but we don't want to think about it and when movies are made...they become "DISASTER" movies almost always. People don't act the same way to disaster movies they way they do to personalized stories.

"And McCandless is not characterized as being sad or angry."

Hmmmmm....then what was all that flashback stuff with his parents, yelling and fighting about? Why, in the movie, did he make decisions to disconcect when thinking about his family? Why did his sister say all those things impling him not being happy?

Either you never saw the movie, or you missed big parts.
praxis
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Posted 05/15/08 - 2:42 PM:

A quote from the Men'sJournal article linked in the OP by Nihil...

"The dog-eared notebooks are filled with hundreds of entries from pilgrims who traveled the arduous 22 miles out to try to feel some connection with the McCandless spirit. They came by snowmobile, dogsled, mountain bike, and mostly by foot, usually taking two days to hike the boggy, mosquito-plagued trail and ford the freezing rivers. They came from across the U.S. and from as far as Bulgaria, Finland, and the Czech Republic. They came because there was something about the story, and about Alaska, that drew them there."

What is it about the story that draws them there, K? Mind you the article was written before the movie was released.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 05/15/08 - 10:52 PM:

Much of my fascination is born from an essay by James Hillman, entitled "Pothos: The Nostalgia of Puer Eternus"

James Hillman on Pothos wrote:
"...the events that attract us specifically here are those of restlessness and wandering, homelessness and homesickness together, the suffering of nostalgia which is at the same time an impetus for search and quest."

Hillman quotes Jung: "The heroes are usually wanderers (Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Herakles, Mithras, etc.), and wandering is a symbol of longing, of the restless urge which never finds its object, of nostalgia for the lost mother."

Hillman:"... the early and classical Jungian account of the Puer Eternus: the eternally youthful component of each human psyche, man or woman, old or young, that is eternally wandering, eternally longing, and is ultimately attached to the archetypal mother."



Hillman then steers away from the reduction of his Puer Eternus to the "psychology of mother-son incest" and then introduces "Pothos."

James Hillman on Pothos wrote:
The Greek word for this specific feeling of nostalgic desire was pothos. Plato defines it in the Cratylus as a yearning desire for a distant object. Its associations in the classical corpus are with longings for that which cannot be obtained...

The greatest exemplary of pothos in antiquity was Alexander the Great. He is said to have invented the phrase "seized by pothos" to account for his indescribable longing for something beyond, a longing that carried him beyond all borders in a horizontal conquest of space, a true "space man" of ancient times.


Just a note: Chris gave himself the title Alexander Supertramp, a traveling, homeless Alexander, and he definitely had an active spirit of going after what had meaning for him, moving form one place to another. It be interesting to know why he called himself Alex. His story seems to fit the nostalgia of pothos (yearning wanderer) so well, and the movie just exaggerates it, turns it into myth and so shines the reference. He evokes Pothos. As a young man who is longing for spirit too in our modern day wasteland; I feel it and can relate.

James Hillman on Pothos wrote:

There are three portions or persons of Eros that have been classically differentiated: himeros or physical desire for the immediately present to be grasped in the heat of the moment; anteros or answering love; and pothos, the longing toward the unattainable, the ungraspable, the incomprehensible, that idealization which is attendant upon all love and which is beyond capture. ...pothos is love's spiritual portion.



praxis
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Posted 05/16/08 - 1:52 PM:

JosefK wrote:
Even in movies where thousands die, there is always the personalized story, no other way to do it.

True grin
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Posted 07/15/10 - 12:15 PM:

I don't like how this thread concentrated on the social perspective of McCandless feat. I mean, that he must have escaped from something. Look at his last words:
I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!
Those are the words of a happy man.
libertygrl
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Posted 07/15/10 - 1:28 PM:

hi willowz, welcome smiling face

i think the quote you cited is consistent with the notion of mccandless as embodying the puer aeternus, no?
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Posted 07/15/10 - 5:50 PM:

libertygrl wrote:
hi willowz, welcome smiling face

i think the quote you cited is consistent with the notion of mccandless as embodying the puer aeternus, no?
Hi. Not really. I thought that's what he threw away, when going into the wild. I mean all these 'roles'.

I just thought that this thread is trying to place this free person into some 'constraints'.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 07/16/10 - 12:42 AM:

Willowz wrote:
Hi. Not really. I thought that's what he threw away, when going into the wild. I mean all these 'roles'.

I just thought that this thread is trying to place this free person into some 'constraints'.


You're right though. The psychoanalytic construct of 'Puer aeternus' is just a way to label a kind of typical behavior in some youth, associated with verticality (reaching for an ideal) far beyond the normal risk constraints we make for ourselves. The wandering aspect accounts for possible demise (wandering off a cliff?). Think back to Holden Caulfield from Sallinger's Catcher in the Rye.

Dionysus, the half deity, who couldn't be held in prison, resonates with this archetype. He magically breaks out of any physical constraints.

Icarus is another story, which portrays in a visual metaphor the features of the Puer Aeternus archetype. Escaping from prison, flying towards the sun, lifted from the materiality of Earth ('mater' as in mother), he revolves through the abstract world of spirit (the very power of potentiality) -- possibly free from and thus condemned by the bonds of common sense.

The grave aspects and risks of danger and death in 'Puer Aeternus' is for me half of the fascination. If McCandless didn't die then I wouldn't be as drawn to the story as I am.



Edited by Nihil Loc on 07/16/10 - 1:01 AM
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Posted 07/16/10 - 1:13 AM:

You know... McCandless wasn't really running away from anything. It was a 'return' to the wild. The sociological aspect of him running away from society may be useful, but other than that it's useless.
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#22 - Quote - Permalink
Posted 07/16/10 - 2:25 AM:

willowz wrote:
You know... McCandless wasn't really running away from anything. It was a 'return' to the wild. The sociological aspect of him running away from society may be useful, but other than that it's useless.



Return? We can't return where we've never been. Not even in the metaphorical sense: Humans, all primates that I know of, are social animals and can't 'return' to a solitary life in the wild. They can go there out of a conviction that it is better, I presume mostly for personal reasons, to do so. There are always hermits. But in a general sense - we're not made for solitary life in the wild any which way you look at it.
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Posted 07/16/10 - 11:13 AM:

Whether McCandles was turning away from something and drawn towards something else, eventually it becomes apparent that there is not something else. This is a truth that is absurdly hard to swallow.
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Posted 07/16/10 - 12:10 PM:

smokinpristiformis wrote:



Return? We can't return where we've never been. Not even in the metaphorical sense: Humans, all primates that I know of, are social animals and can't 'return' to a solitary life in the wild. They can go there out of a conviction that it is better, I presume mostly for personal reasons, to do so. There are always hermits. But in a general sense - we're not made for solitary life in the wild any which way you look at it.
That is not to say that we coulden't live in the wild as if we never did. Anyways, people 99% of the time are happier 'out there' than the ones looking for their place in society.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 07/16/10 - 9:44 PM:

willowz wrote:
That is not to say that we coulden't live in the wild as if we never did. Anyways, people 99% of the time are happier 'out there' than the ones looking for their place in society.


My commentary isn't set out to put a positive or negative spin on the story or character of McCandless. Since I draw bits and pieces from the long discredited analytic psychology of Jung, my evaluation carries that bias however. Jung saw the 'puer aeternus' as a problem of psychological integration during a major transition period in life, from child to adult.

In reality, McCandless perhaps didn't have this problem, but the story that has grown from it carries the psychological imprint (myth). My fascination and projection of McCandless has to do with what I'm writing here, and is in no way objective. I just find that 'puer aeternus' somehow makes sense to me, more so than most other Jungian stuff. It gives order and meaning to a very personal and emotional response sparked by the story.

The same impulse to life (freedom perhaps) we see in McCandless' story can be analyzed in all kinds of ways. Kraukaer is as fascinated with this verticality and other people like McCandless, as you'll read in the book 'Into the Wild.' He wrote a horrifying account of a few famous Everest climbs 'Into Thin Air' which again deals with very risky behavior and the consequence of vertical ascents (metaphorically and literally).

Praxis wrote:
Whether McCandles was turning away from something and drawn towards something else, eventually it becomes apparent that there is not something else. This is a truth that is absurdly hard to swallow.


That does accord with Hillman's re-visitation to the Greek idea of Pothos (wandering desire). There is no fulfillment to the wandering. We go forever onwards, moving from place to place, forever after the hard to find fulfillment of our own spirit.

Jung connects this longing to that of the child for his mother, which in many old cultures is also mythically inscribed as the relationship of human kind to the earth. The mother is the ground of being through which spirit of man (the dream-like machinations of play) are incubated. Then we are released unto the earth (born again, a second time) as adults, who are nourished by the earth, by the perennial analogue: as a babe is by its mother.

Thus the Wild is just a replacement for that somethingelse (a fullness) that has disappeared.

__________

I think McCandless story is in a way very pedestrian, perennial, but by a strange literary turn also legendary and mythic.



Edited by Nihil Loc on 07/16/10 - 9:53 PM
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