Puer Aeturnus is Latin for ‘Eternal Youth’. It is a concept from the psychology of Carl Jung and applies to those men who, even though they’re in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s have retained the emotional characteristics of an adolescent. Many of these men, referred to as Puers from now on, had fathers who were partially or totally absent. Others had fathers who were weak and passive, which left the upbringing to the mother. All Puers have an inappropriately strong tie to the mother, positive or negative. If there is no essential differentiation from the mother, there is no masculinity. A sense of masculinity has to be won by struggle; it is not a birthright! This is done by taking a stand, overcoming inertia, deciding and acting more, reading and knowing more, by gaining muscle and gaining competence in the world of men (Hillman). Puers are known for their wandering, their many relationships and sometimes Don Juanisms. This has to do with seeking the perfect mother in every woman who will give them everything- always to be disappointed. They are drawn to women who will admiringly reflect and not disturb their narcissistic self-image. When the ‘in love’ stage is over and the Puer discovers that the woman is not a ‘goddess’, but quite mortal and human, the fascination with her vanishes. The ‘goddess’ of old is now seen as a devouring and cold witch who wants to enslave him. Events get even more complicated when the projection fits. Many Puers are charming and attractive, but there is also a concealed sadistic streak one would hardly guess was there until it strikes- many women will attest to that. Charm might make a great first impression, but intimacy, commitment and involvement are needed in relationship. The more excessive the Puer’s ‘nice guy’ and charming Persona, the more brutal and cold becomes his shadow. At parties he stays long enough to enthrall and perhaps make a castrating remark to the man of the house before he exits.
The Puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. This can be externalized in a highly symbolic fashion in fascination with flying or climbing mountains. Many Puers hang out on ski slopes and racetracks. Many are drawn to drinking, gambling, pornography and drugs to get that rush.
The Puer is impulsive and impatient, has a low frustration tolerance and does not reflect. He isn’t only threatened by aging, but also by self-discipline, patience, duty, endurance and accepting limitations. There is no time for standing still, tolerating conflict and solving problems. He has to be on the move “where the action is”. He does not like tasks requiring long preparations and training. He can work, but only in a state of enthusiasm. When he meets with routine, boredom or tediousness, which are part of every career, he usually quits and takes flight. He can’t make a commitment in any part of his life. Action is his fate rather than reflection. Marie Luise von Franz felt that underneath this relentless pursuit of ecstasy is either a need to return to the womb of unconditional love and bliss provided by mother or a secret longing for a religious experience. One can find many Puers in different religious settings in today’s spiritual supermarket. Hillman, on the other hand, felt the Puer’s relentless wandering is a longing for the father and fathering.
Problems also arise when adapting to society. The Puer envisions himself as a bringer of meaning, rather than one who has to adapt. Hillman asks “The Puer may give us a sign, point the way, but will he give us a hand?” The inflated feelings of being superior, along with arrogance and defiance lead to difficulties at work and in relationships. Quite a few Puers don’t make it to mid-life; many of them die early in the ‘fast lane’ of drugs or impulsive adventure. Some get lost in religious militancy or sell out to the ‘company’. Still others flip over and surrender their individuality to clubs and organizations like the local softball team, the Elks, the Glee club or Alcoholics Anonymous. Without consciousness, men with a Puer Aeternus complex always become victims to their impulsiveness and self-destructiveness or collective movements like pathological materialism; political extremism or religious fanaticism sweep them up.
It needs to be emphasized that the Puer suffers from a most painful and despairing condition. To be on a never ending journey without a home, to pursue thrills and pleasures relentlessly at the expense of everything and everyone else, to impulsively defy society and women and yet need them desperately, to pay the price that lack of intimacy and commitment demands, to hungrily want success and not attain it, all leads to acute suffering and intense loneliness. As nature is much kinder towards excessive indulgences, impulsiveness, and unconsciousness in youth, it is not until the middle of life that the Puer’s life becomes problematic. The quest for euphoria always alternates with it’s opposite, namely dark and sinister moods of depression, irrational fears, physical breakdown or hypochondriasis. After pride and arrogance, always come despair and depression. It is in midlife that we get punished by our sins, not for them. Hillman feels the cure of the Puer lies in decay and in consciously facing wastage, affliction and moral horror. The Puer needs to confront his need for immediate gratification, his inflatedness, his self-destructive and strong dependencies, which he denies.
One the positive side, 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, it can serve all of us. There are other men who are totally passive and have no fire at all and one wishes that somehow a ‘Puer spark’ would ignite some form of action and wake them from their pathetic slumber.
One for all and all for one.
Dr. Peter Milhado – Copyright © 2009