When archetypal figures die, a part of our national psyche goes with them. Diana, the flawed Fairy Princess. Michael, the boy who wouldn't grow up. When we mourn them, we mourn what they symbolized to us, the mythic 'archetype' -- as Carl Jung first called it -- they play in a culture's imagination.
"I am Peter Pan," Michael Jackson told Martin Bashir in a giddy interview moment. But this isn't necessarily something to brag about. The puer aeternus, the 'eternal boy' first identified by Jung in our pantheon of personality types, is a mess of contradictions: charming and unstable, needy but addicted to freedom, guileless yet manipulative. (Female Peter Pans are called puella aeternae.) Peter Pan is the patron saint of no committal people, in an age-phobic culture, who are also addicted to admiration.
Like all archetypes the PP is bi-polar, exhibiting both a positive and and negative aspect. The positive side of the PP, the Divine Child, symbolizes newness, potential for growth, hope for the future. He can be heroic. The negative side is the child-man who refuses to grow up and meet the challenges of life face on, waiting instead for his ship to come in and solve all his problems.
Peter Pans are charming but unobtainable, big hearted but self-obsessed. Reformed PPs make excellent friends but trust me, you don't want to be married to one. (I've just come through a PP divorce). My own PPer was amazing in many ways -- magical, in fact -- but with people who won't grow up it's how scared they are of their own shadow.
"The one situation dreaded by people of this type," writes Marie Louise von Franz, a protégée of Jung's, "... is to be bound to anything whatsoever. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which is may be impossible to slip out again. Every just-do situation to Peter Pan is hell."
The just-so situation? That must mean real life. PP's aren't always great at real life -- they prefer magic, and magical thinking, a world filled with promise - like a bottomless cookie jar -- and no demise. However crazy this might seem - or 'unrealistic', as cynics always call dreamers - Jung knew that people need Peter Pan's message, too. It's the levity that helps to keep us afloat, the magic that gives us lightness of touch -- what the French call legerdemain -- grace under pressure, wonder, and hope. The eternal youth is always beginning, delighted by what lies ahead. We need to believe in beginnings these days, with so much disaster all around us. We need to remember to keep starting over.
Follow Mark Matousek on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markmatousek