The Encounter with the Soul

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.

Mr Miyagi is the Elder to the Orphan hero of the story, Daniel

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:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

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:-

PhysicalExotericEsoteric (positive)Esoteric (shadow)
OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellectIdeology
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWillHyper-masculine, devouring feminine
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)SoulN/A

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. 

Pro-tip: don’t take life advice from an old man wearing face paint and a hoodie

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.

Pro-tip 2: don’t take life advice from ghosts who appear under a full moon

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.

Woe betide the anima figure in a male tragedy

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 devil demands his due but is thwarted by the eternal feminine

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.

A god comes to the rescue of the hero

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.

24 thoughts on “The Encounter with the Soul”

  1. Hi Simon,

    Hope you have an enjoyable break.

    I’d have to suggest that: “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” is not happening. It’s not much to ask for, seriously.

    For your interest, I’ve met people who’ve said to me, almost word for word, Faust’s lament: “is lamenting what he perceives to be the wasted years of his adult life.” Didn’t know what to make of it, and your essay has put the ideas into considerable context.



  2. Chris – yes, that’s why it’s possible to read the first book of Faust as a midlife crisis. Faust overcompensates by trying to re-live his youth. As for not handing over the reins, I’ve mentioned in past posts that I’ve seen two examples of that not happening recently and, in my opinion, the fault is much more with the older men in question who should know better but who blame the younger generation for their own failings. It’s actual a perfect example of why the failure of archetypal Elders goes hand-in-hand of the failure of archetypal Orphans in our society.

  3. Simon – thanks for another year of entertaining & educational posts. 🙂

    I’ve seen or heard of some of those old-age movies, but mainly because my mum mentioned she saw them w/ fellow seniors, or because I watched dementia-themed films to get more perspective on how our culture constructs the dementia narrative.

    Is Synecdoche, NY all that pretentious? Or is it just an intimate film about, among other things, a pretentious & self-indulgent arts culture? I love Kaufman’s genius for taking the piss & found this no exception. Pretentious = taking itself too seriously – like, say, Aronofsky’s work? Or Ray Lawrence’s excruciating Jindabyne.

  4. Shane – exactly. There’s a very subtle distinction between being pretentious and knowing you are being pretentious or just plain being pretentious. All great art is knowing pretentiousness. Apart from anything else, it’s necessary since almost all the people who fund art do so for pretentious reasons and so great artists have to learn how to be pretentious enough to satisfy their clients while also giving a wink and a nudge to those who understand. Kaufmann is definitely in that category. Sadly, almost all Australian films are now pretentious drivel since they rely on government funding to get made and the people making the films believe the drivel.

    Getty – yes, that makes sense. The two sons who are going to kill each other are the hyper-masculine who have spurned their father (as Elder) while Oedipus, through his daughters (anima) is cleansed and made holy.

  5. Hi Simon,

    My thoughts exactly. On the whole, the older folks in the population are failing the youth in this regard.

    Hey, you mentioned not being able to find a film where an elder character went against the grain and guided the orphan characters through a rite of initiation into adulthood. You may have forgotten: Top Gun II – Maverick. I’m being serious. Say what you will about the actor and the story, but what you wrote about was reflected in the entire narrative from beginning to end. An experienced elder guides a group of younger ego driven younger folks through a rite of initiation. And, the film was slammed by some sectors, yet it was the highest grossing film at the box office last year. Does the tittering and harsh critique suggest a worldview which is being threatened? I’d like to think so, yeah.



  6. Chris – interesting idea. I haven’t seen the movie but had a quick read of the plot summary. I think for it to be technically an Elder Story Tom Cruise’s character would need to die. But, it sounds like one of the other characters takes that part of the story. So, maybe it’s as close as we can get now to an Elder Story.

  7. Hi Simon,
    Where do you think Paul McCartney fits into that list?
    An elder, yes, but he doesn’t really seem to age does he? ????
    If you are a fan this is a great bargain, I’ve secured a copy via my brother who according to my sister wanted to know what he could get me for my birthday.
    I would have said doesn’t matter, but I happened to be wanting to get this:
    If you’re a Beatles fan, you may want to get a copy.
    Merry Xmas to all! ????????

  8. Helen – hmmmm. Societal elders normally fall into 3 categories: political, military and religious. I would argue that in the West we also have a fourth which would be artists and philosophers eg. Shakespeare, Goethe etc. Whether McCartney falls into that category is probably a matter of personal preference. I think it makes a lot of sense, though, since music is especially important during the years of life when we are looking for elders (teenage-early 20s). Merry Xmas to you too!

  9. Skip – good question. I’ve realised while working through these ideas the extent to which all these books and films foreground the male perspective. The only book or film I can think of that gives at least equal weight to the female side of the equation is Patrick White’s Voss. If we follow the archetypal progression for Laura Trevelyan, we find that she must sacrifice herself to make the Adult transition to marriage, childbirth and child rearing. That occurs at the start of Act 2. Laura’s sickness at the end of Act 2 would then symbolise her own Elder transition. It’s also when Voss dies. What dies is the myth of Voss. This is arguably the same position that Faust is in at the start of Part One. He has to re-evaluate his life. There’s a kind of renunciation of the naivete of the Adult years and a willingness to ascend to a higher level of truth. That’s what Laura achieves in Act 3 of the book while also teaching poetry to the schoolchildren. Again, we see the two mains themes: truth and beauty.

  10. Hi Simon. This is my first reading of any of your writing, and I really enjoyed it. Chris recommended this blog entry as it ties in with a book that I am reading at the moment that looks at the internal struggles between the body (feels good), ego (looks good) and soul (is good). Your blog actually added alot of clarity to some of the concepts that I had been reading about. Thanks, Sandra (Fernglade Farm)

  11. Yeah I was thinking of a few books, namely Anna Karenina (and also War and Peace I suppose), many of the Jane Austen books and then 100 years of solitude.

    Now I’m not really sure how the interpretation would go but Tolstoy did seem to give equal weight to the development of feminine side of the equation, Austen foregrounds all of it and 100 years old solitude is just so awesome in its exploration of all the characters that I’m sure you could glean every single progression on both the male and female side out. Ursula is really the archetypical female elder, while many of the other women fail at various stages of the transitions.

  12. Skip – it raises an important issue. I differentiated on gender for the shadow forms for adult: hyper-masculine and devouring feminine. But these imply both masculine and feminine positive forms too and this distinction would also carry into Elderhood.

    Robert Graves had his three female archetypes which map to the archetypal progression: Maiden, Mother, Crone. The Crone also has positive and shadow forms. In positive form, she is Sophia (wisdom). In shadow form she is disagreeable and malicious but also a kind of truth-teller (ugly truths). I could see the shadow form of the Crone as the integration of the hyper-masculine (shadow animus) since she is a forceful and destructive figure. Many older women fall into this archetype. My grandmother was one.

  13. Yeah that’s what I was thinking but in some ways is the crone actually a shadow form or just the form itself? Because if a woman has to integrate the animus they should become more forceful and less empathetic. And less empathetic means in a roundabout way less devouring mother because they should become more indifferent to their children. I think the devouring mother is the refusal to move from mother to crone. It’s interesting because the purpose of menopause in primates seems to be to allow women to move into the grandmother elder role, on which they can teach others.

    I think for a lot of modern women they get put on a fast forward track where they almost have to skip and switch back and forth out of order because modern careers don’t really allow them a chance to be mothers until they basically so away with the career for a time, or the mother role goes to the state or someone else.

  14. Skip – that’s how I think of it and it matches up with the Adult – Elder transition since Adulthood begins with marriage-childbirth and so it makes sense it would end with the release from the child. I think there’s also an interesting asymmetry between the sexes here. For women, all the archetypal transitions have a fixed biological element, to put it rather drily, in menstruation, childbirth and menopause. For men, the biological element is either non-existent or minimal. I think this explains the puer aeturnus, or man-child, phenomenon. Pretty sure initiation ceremonies have always been far more intense for boys than for girls for this reason. Boys need to have some “sense” knocked into them 🙂

  15. one of my favorite movies which dealt with a rather unusual elder/orphan dynamic was whale rider. In this case the orphan goes to great lengths to be accepted by the reluctant elder and fulfill her destiny.

  16. Another movie comes to mind which i can’t remember the title of. It is set in New mexico and called Bless Me,( can’t remember her name) about a young boy and his curandera grandmother or aunt.

  17. Stephen – thanks for those suggestions. I think the second movie is called “Bless me, Ultima”. They both sound worth a watch, although I can see from the plot summaries that both are Orphan Stories and not Elder Stories 😉 Interesting, also, that both portray non-western traditions which further proves my point about the absence of realistic portrayals of the Orphan – Elder relationship from a strictly western point of view.

  18. Thanks Simon.
    Interesting comment on the dearth of the elder theme is how hard it was to even think of those two.

  19. Stephen – I’ve been wondering how far back it goes and I’m starting to think it’s all the way to the Reformation.

  20. Yeah it’s almost like a lot initiation ceremonies for men are trying to recreate (in a less dangerous fashion) something like battle. Women get this no matter what through childbirth, which is dangerous, painful and terrifying.

    Maybe there is something to compulsory military service in this regard, if it wasn’t so corrupt and exploitative it could probably do some good. The men who have a good experience in the military always seem to be well adjusted and very competent, but there are just too many cases of men being broken by it to recommend that path. When I was young I considered becoming a naval officer until a family member who was in the service told me in no uncertain terms to stay the hell away from it.

  21. Skip – I think it’s a lot like modern schooling. For some kids, it works. For others, it really doesn’t work. Then there’s the rest who get through without being either overly challenged or overly damaged. That’s the problem of late civilisation. Everything is at such a scale that there can’t be any allowance for personal factors even if the people working in the system wanted there to be.

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