To finish off what’s ended up becoming a little series of posts on the subject of archetypal transformations, I thought I’d focus on a couple of stories that show us a “successful” transition from the Adult to the Elder. Stories featuring a hero making the Elder transition are vanishingly rare in the modern world.
In fact, Elder characters in general are rare and, when they do appear, it is almost always in a fantasy or sci-fi context. Arguably, all the most famous Elders from modern stories are fantasy-figures: Obi-wan Kenobi, Yoda, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Mr Miyagi and Morpheus (from The Matrix). It’s also true that each of these Elder figures is not the hero of their respective stories but a secondary character in what I have called the Orphan Story: the journey from the Orphan to the Adult archetype.
I had a quick browse through a few top 100 movie lists and couldn’t see a single story that features an Elder as hero. Another search revealed this list of the “best movies about old age”. I hadn’t heard of a single one of them, which just goes to show how popular stories about Elders are in our culture. For all these reasons, it will be a useful exercise to outline what a “real” Elder looks like and that’s what we’ll do in this post, albeit by looking at literary and films versions of the archetype.
In the last couple of posts, we’ve examined the failure of the archetypal progression to Elder as exemplified in Shakespeare’s King Lear (and also, less obviously, in Macbeth). We’ve also seen that the failure of the Elder transformation is accompanied by the rise of the hyper-masculine since Elderhood implies the tempering of Will by Soul; something which is true at the individual and the societal level.
We have captured these generalisations in the table of archetypal progressions:-
|Economic, political, spiritual, sexual
|Old Age (menopause)
|Mentor, Elder, (Retired)
For male heroes, the Soul is represented by one or more female characters and this is in keeping with Carl Jung’s point that the Soul in man is the feminine anima while for women it is the masculine animus. Thus, Cordelia represents the positive anima for King Lear – the prospect of a successful transition to Elder – while Goneril and Regan represent the shadow anima; the failure of the transition.
Note that I am using the Jungian concept of the shadow here in a modified sense to refer specifically to archetypal transformations. What I have been implying with the above table is that each archetypal transition is itself a confrontation with the Unconscious. In Freudian terms, the archetypal transition comes up from the id (the Unconscious) and challenges the ego. Our mission is to incorporate the archetype and, in doing so, to transcend it. When we succeed, we progress to the next archetype. Failure to transcend does not leave us where we started, however. Rather, the “energy” from that archetype gets channeled into the shadow part of the psyche.
We can capture this by adding a column to our table as follows:-
|Economic, political, spiritual, sexual
|Hyper-masculine, devouring feminine
|Old Age (menopause)
|Mentor, Elder, (Retired)
The failure to transcend from Adult to Elder leads to the shadow form of the Adult will: hyper-masculine and devouring feminine. The failure to transcend from Orphan to Adult leads to the shadow form of the Orphan: Ideology instead of Intellect. The failure to transcend childhood into adolescence leaves one dissociated from reality.
These combinations hold true at the societal level too. The institutions of society function as the Soul of society. When they are just, they keep the rest of society in balance. When those institutions become corrupt, everything goes out of balance. The Will turns into the hyper-masculine/devouring feminine. Intellect becomes Ideology. Imagination becomes dissociation. What all this implies is that the archetypal progressions cannot be avoided. All you can do is push their energy into the Unconscious.
And this brings us nicely into the first of the stories we will be talking about in this post; one of the most famous that deals with the Elder transition: Goethe’s Faust.
At the beginning of the story, we find Faust alone in his study in a state of suicidal depression. Faust is lamenting what he perceives to be the wasted years of his adult life. He is on the verge of the Elder transition and is not off to a good start.
That bad start is going to be made worse by the arrival of the devil and here we have a prime example of the symbolism often used by literature and film to represent the difficulties of the archetypal progressions. The devil in this case represents what we have just called the shadow. He symbolises the parts of Faust that are pulling against the transition to the Elder archetype.
Another classic example of this symbolism is Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is the archetypal Orphan trying to make the transition to adulthood. He has Elders in the form of Obi-wan and Yoda to help him. But he also has two shadow Elders, Darth Vader and Palpatine, who are tempting Luke to the dark side. The dark side is just what we have called the shadow. It’s the temptation to try and avoid the archetypal mission.
It’s no coincidence that, in Hamlet, it is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who appears to him late in the night with evil tidings. Hamlet’s shadow father represents the part of Hamlet’s psyche that is trying to subvert his transcendence to adulthood just like Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s shadow father.
Of course, these things are not purely psychological in nature. In the real world, there really do exist people who do not have our best interests at heart. This is not necessarily because they wish evil for us. Most of the time, they are simply pursuing what they think is best for themselves. The psychological aspect is the extent to which we allow ourselves to be influenced by those who lead us right or those who lead us wrong.
Luke Skywalker and Hamlet are both offered the same devil’s bargain. Palpatine tells Luke to kill Darth Vader. The ghost tells Hamlet to kill his uncle (surrogate father). In a Freudian sense, killing the father represents the failure to overcome the Oedipus Complex and develop the super-ego. It would therefore condemn the individual to a lifetime stuck at the developmental level of the Child.
The Orphan must transcend the father, not kill him. More symbolically, the Orphan must incorporate the energy coming from the Unconscious, not deny it. The failure to do so simply funnels the “energy” into the shadow of the psyche. For the Orphan, that means a reversion to the Child and the dissociation from reality.
What is being offered to Skywalker and Hamlet is the avoidance of their archetypal mission. The same is true of Faust. The devil offers a different bargain but one that is perfectly formulated for the avoidance of the Elder transition. We know that the Adult archetype is associated with the faculty of Will. It is no coincidence, then, that the devil offers Faust the unlimited fulfilment of his Will. He may have anything in the world. In exchange, the devil will take his Soul. This is quite literally the negation of the archetypal transcendence from Adult to Elder. Faust must integrate his Soul. Instead, he sells it to the devil.
To deny the archetypal mission brings ruin as we have seen with Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. We already know that Faust is in for the same treatment since the title of the work is Faust: A Tragedy. Since Faust is at the Elder stage of life, it’s a tragedy of the Elder and we can expect something similar to King Lear.
We know from last week’s post that the negation of the Elder transition leads to the hyper-masculine and that is exactly what happens in the story of Faust. The twist is that it is Faust himself who reverts to the hyper-masculine driven on by infinite energy of the devil.
A female character, Gretchen, enters the story and we know by now that she represents Faust’s anima. Since he has denied the Elder transition and since the story is a tragedy, we can expect the female character to die. And that is precisely what happens, but not before Faust and the devil kill her brother and mother into the bargain. With that, Part One of the story of Faust ends and we can see many parallels with the tragedy of King Lear.
It would take Goethe another 25 years to finish Part Two and so we can presume that he had much time to deliberate on what to write. Part Two is a hard work to parse as it is rich in symbolism. But, for our archetypal analysis, the meaning of it is very clear. It is the redemption arc of the story. Faust failed his Elder transition in Part One. In Part Two he is going to make good. We see this quite clearly in the opening scene where the angel Ariel makes an appeal to forgive Faust and we also see it in the closing scene where another angel declares “He who strives on can earn redemption still.”
Near the beginning of Part Two, Faust descends to the “realm of mothers” to bring back the ideal form of beauty. Symbolically, this represents the first step on the path to transcendence. Faust is no longer denying the urge which is coming up from the Unconscious but facing it head on. That urge represents the desire to learn what beauty is. Having learned that, Faust then sets about trying implement it in the real world.
He wins a battle on behalf of the emperor and is assigned some land where he puts his plans into action. Note that this is an almost identical set up to the beginning of Macbeth but, unlike Macbeth, Faust devotes himself to governing the lands assigned to him as best he can rather than striving after more power. He is tempering his Will by Soul realised in the pursuit of beauty. In doing so, he becomes the Elder at the societal level in the form of a just ruler.
Finally, we get to the finale to the story, which has perplexed many a reader (myself included). When Faust dies, his Soul is taken up to heaven where three biblical holy women advocate on his behalf. The devil gets shafted and Faust is accepted into heaven. The completion of Faust’s archetypal mission is symbolised by no less than the arch-anima figure of western civilisation – the Virgin Mary. The very last line of the play confirms this reading – “the eternal feminine lifts us up”.
The reason the finale of Faust has been so misunderstood is for two related reasons.
Firstly, Goethe named the second book Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy. That implies that Faust is going to be ruined yet again. In fact, the opposite occurs. Since Faust wins in the end, this technically makes the second book a comedy, not a tragedy as the title suggests.
Goethe reinforces this reading by using a trick which goes right back to antiquity. It’s called the deus ex machina. In ancient theatre, this involves a god descending to the stage at the end to resolve the story in the hero’s favour. Traditionalists descried this technique for the exact reason that it turned a tragedy into a comedy.
It is impossible that a scholar of the Classical such a Goethe could have used this technique accidentally and so we can only assume he did it on purpose, thus emphasising the comedic ending and making the title playfully misleading.
No less a philologist than Nietzsche seems to have misunderstood the meaning of the ending of Faust since he used the phrase the eternal feminine sardonically numerous times in his own writing. Can it be a coincidence that Nietzsche’s will-to-power is the philosophy of the hyper-masculine?
Because of the strange nature of the ending to Faust, it seems many readers have simply ignored it. If you do that, you can end up with a quite different reading of the story and one that foregrounds the hyper-masculine elements. I suspect that’s also why Spengler chose to use the phrase “Faustian” to describe modern western civilisation.
Faust Part Two is clearly meant as a redemption story that fulfils the Elder transition. But the highly symbolic nature of it alongside the strangeness of the ending and the contradiction in the title hides its meaning. It’s also true that the work is abstract and not primarily concerned to portray Faust as a real human. There is one modern story which takes the opposite approach and portrays the Elder as a real human being while also being a story of Elder transcendence – the Charlie Kaufmann film Synecdoche: New York.
The hero of the film, played by one of the great actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theatre director, Caden Cotard. Cotard’s wife and daughter leave him early in the film and we know this signals danger since these are symbols of his anima. Cotard’s Soul has gone missing in action. He needs to find it.
Cotard will not be tempted by the devil but does receive a very similar offer in the form of a MacArthur grant which sets him up financially for the rest of his life. He determines to spend the endowment creating a theatre piece of “brutal honesty”. What occurs next is very similar to Faust’s journey through the ancient Greek imagination in Faust Part Two only far more self-referential and postmodern. Cotard hires an actor to play himself. His theatre piece of brutal honesty becomes a replay of his own life now in symbolic form.
While all this is going on, Cotard’s physical condition is steadily deteriorating and it’s in this way that the movie is, in fact, a work of brutal honesty since Kaufmann does not shy away from this aspect of aging. Cotard eventually hands over the directorial duties of his play to a female character while himself taking on a job as a cleaner. We should know by now that the new female theatre director represents Cotard’s anima. She begins directing both Cotard and the man who is acting as Cotard in the theatre piece.
What this symbolises is that the successful transition to the Elder role involves giving up control to your Soul. At the societal level, it means handing over of the reins of power to the next generation having ensured they are ready for the task, something which Lear failed to do and which also does not happen in Faust. Cotard ceases to be the boss and becomes the servant. The Elder transition is the final transcendence of ego and the incorporation of what Jung called the Self.
Arguably, Goethe meant something very similar in the finale of Faust. Faust’s ultimate fate is not in his own hands. Only the intervention of the eternal feminine saves him and rescues his Soul from the devil. It was the tacked-on nature of the finale and the comedic and playful style of its delivery which backgrounded this reading and can lead to an interpretation of Faust as the hyper-masculine. Kaufmann leaves no doubt in the matter. He has his hero physically degrade before our very eyes. There is no way to view Cotard as hyper-masculine and yet he continues to work, think and dream until the very end just like Faust.
For those who haven’t seen it but are interested, you should know that Synecdoche: New York is a pretentious movie and you will probably be tempted to switch it off halfway through. It’s also a masterpiece of storytelling and possibly the greatest film ever made. I recommend persevering to the end and then re-watching it. Every time I’ve watched it, I’ve noticed things I missed earlier.
But, of course, it was a box office flop. We live in the Faustian culture, the culture of the hyper-masculine/shadow feminine. Kaufmann gave us a hero that, unlike Faust, cannot be interpreted in the way that our culture demands. For us, the Elder reeks of death and “giving up”. Which is true. The Elder transition is the facing of death and that’s something that even Goethe seemed to want to avoid. I’m sure Kaufmann needed every bit of “brutal honesty” to make his film.
But one of the things that both stories make clear is that the Elder archetype is not about just sitting in a chair waiting to die. It’s about the pursuit of beauty and truth. The Elder becomes a servant to beauty and truth. That is only a degradation and “giving up” from the point of view of the ego.
To the extent that Elders end up in positions of authority, they will make their society beautiful and truthful. The alternative is the lies and deceits of the hyper-masculine and shadow feminine. I’ll leave to the reader to decide which sort of society we are living in.
Just a quick final note to say that I’ll be taking the next two weeks off to enjoy the summer holidays here in Australia (I will be responding to comments, though).
I wish everybody a Merry Christmas and happy new year. See you on the 9th January for a new year of blog posts.