The Recurring American Nightmare — A Freudian Perspective

bpp5After the deadly shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, earlier this month late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert momentarily struck a somber rather than comic note. Like many, Colbert admitted his uncertainty about what to do in the face of the unremitting gun violence plaguing the U.S.: “Some say the answer is stricter gun laws; others say the answer is mental health care, that we need better treatment or just to keep the guns out of the hands of the insane. Maybe it’s both, I honestly don’t know.” He concluded, “But I do know that one of the definitions of insanity is changing nothing and then pretending that something will change.” For those of us who join Colbert in wishing for positive change in such matters, perhaps we might turn to a few late ruminations from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud for guidance and inspiration.

In the last two decades of his life Freud came to realize that other drives besides that of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain influence human behavior. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle he observed that frequently we are compelled to engage in repetitive actions that have little if anything to do with pleasure achievement or pain avoidance. One example of such a repetition compulsion is a veteran’s involuntary reliving of his or her traumatic war experiences in dreams and hallucinations. The human psyche seemingly requires this reliving, this repetition, but why?

In answer Freud proposed that the psyche has two drives which are more basic or primal than the pleasure-pain drive. He called these the Eros and death drives. The former is progressive and pro/creative. The latter is regressive and restorative. If Eros is the energy of life animation and preservation, the death drive longs to restore us to our original inanimate state free of tension, want, and worry.

In The Luxury of Afterwards Christine Downing writes that Eros might also be understood as the attachments which bind people together into communities and civilizations. As such, Eros provides an important counterweight to fear and aggression: “Freud sees civilization, communal existence, as dependent on libidinal attachments not just on the containment of aggression: society is based on love and our fear and hatred of others” (65). Eros-inspired love not only manifests as love for another human being or beings but more generally as the love for life in all its beauty and potential.

Downing stresses that though the Eros and death drives are in constant struggle with each other neither drive is always and only “good” or “bad.” While Eros takes us out of ourselves toward others, the future, and the new, the death drive turns us inward to considerations of our mortality, our vulnerability, our fears and our desires, including our desire not to die. Awareness of how both drives operate in our lives, pulling us this way and that at any given moment, is essential to human health and well-being.

What is unhealthy is when either drive becomes literalized. We then identify Eros with the erotic, specifically sex, which is only one important aspect of human creativity and relationship. Reduced in this manner the fullness of Eros is repressed or denied. We become isolated from others and experience impaired social skills, low self-worth, and the devaluation of life.

Similarly, the death drive when literalized or repressed turns into destructive aggression. We become death incarnate and no longer fear the end of life out of a belief that the actions we take will immortalize us in the memory of others. Going out and with a bang become of equal importance.

The human struggle between the Eros and death drives is evident both in the tragic mass shootings in America and our response to these shootings. It is as if we are compelled to repeat this cultural nightmare over and again until we learn to engage these drives in more conscious ways. First the unconscious: one common denominator among many of the shooters is isolation. They are unable to relate to others and have become withdrawn into themselves. Also, like Christopher Harper Mercer in Oregon and Elliott Rodger in California they bemoan the fact that they have never had sex. In these and other instances repressed or frustrated Eros also takes the form of hatred toward the “other” to whom the shooter cannot relate the most, e.g., the other gender (Rodger), religion (Mercer), or race (Dylann Roof).

The excessive number of weapons used in the shootings, rounds fired, ammunition found, and victims killed or wounded are hallmarks of a repressed and unconsciously lived out death drive. Armed to the teeth and often wearing black, the color of death, these shooters have become killing machines. The deadly school stabbing in Sweden this month by a man wearing a Darth Vader mask may be the most recent example of this cross-cultural phenomenon.

Finally, the overwhelming desire to join earlier killers in infamy has already been alluded to. Whether committing suicide or dying at the hands of police, many if not most of these killers have become identified with the idea that in death their lives can reach a state of exalted completion, a nothingness of utmost importance. To them the best antidote to a meaningless life is a “meaningful” death.

The Eros and death drives are also at work in our collective response to these shootings. First and foremost a repressed Eros drive is most evident in our complete lack of a collective response. The libidinal attachments that connect us to each other and eventually to an idea of community and commonwealth are entirely absent. Individual talk show hosts, politicians and pundits weigh in on the best course of action but none is taken.

The discussion or debate that follows these tragedies, then, exemplifies this form of repression. Focus is placed on individual gun ownership rights and health privacy laws. As a result, the individual reigns supreme in public discourse completely isolated from any substantive lasting concern for the collective. On some level we seemingly prefer the comfort of life as we know it to the uncertainty of the change we both need and fear. Noted by Colbert, this insane desire not to change is a desire on the part of the death drive for a state of permanence or “changelessness.”

The way out of our nightmare toward collective healing is not to make so-called soft targets like schools and churches hard. It is not to replace Eros with the aggression of the death drive. Instead we would do well to proactively and not only re-actively engage Eros in our response to these tragedies. That is, rather than only coming together as a grieving community after these events we must learn to come together beforehand—way beforehand.

More and better parenting, sex education, multiculturalism, diversity, and special education classes all through the formative years may be a good place to start. Although such classes are no guarantee that extreme violence will be avoided in the future, the benefit of this education to individual and communal well-being is self-evident. Truly, in the soft targets that are our homes, schools, and religious institutions extra effort must be made to ensure that no child is left behind in anger or isolation.

The discussion of gun safety also needs to be re-framed in light of the Eros and death drives. To sacrifice some gun rights does not mean to sacrifice all gun rights. It does mean that our need to protect ourselves and those we love is tempered by a concern for the other person and the community of others in which we live. Put differently, homes, cities, and nations need protecting but they also need building. In his tribute to Sigmund Freud upon the latter’s passing poet W. H. Auden conveyed the active masculine energy contained within Eros when he described this drive as a “builder of cities.” What we seem to have forgotten is that Eros is a builder of nations, too.

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The Death of Adolescence in American Culture, Part III


All of the films thus far discussed contain multiple overt references to initiation, to what Hillman describes as the initiation of the puer into puer-et-senex consciousness (239). The union of the sames. Consideration of another recent trend in the film genre of action thrillers reveals the same process but from the perspective of the senex. That is, the initiation of the senex by the puer into the senex-et-puer.

In the popular Taken trilogy starring Liam Neeson, The Equalizer with Denzel Washington, and John Wick with Keanu Reeves a wifeless protagonist returns from the exile of retirement, puts his “particular set of skills” to use killing his antagonists, and in so doing unites with a re-awakened puer aspect in himself.

In The Equalizer, Washington’s character, Robert McCall (pictured above), is a particularly striking if not entirely subtle example of such a senex figure. In an early scene in a diner he meets a young prostitute whom he is going to protect and become friends with over the course of the film. She sits at the counter; he sits at a table reading The Old Man and the Sea. McCall also times himself as he dispatches his many antagonists. If Katniss Everdeen, the huntress, resembles a young 21st century Artemis, then the stopwatch-wearing McCall is a modern-day Chronos, a death-dealing Father Time.

In the context of the present blog series these contemporary versions of Artemis and Chronos need each other. They need to reunite with their respective senex or puer pole. This reunion is the “metamorphosis” which Jung alludes to when he writes, “We are living what the Greeks called the kairos—the right moment—for a ‘metamorphosis of the gods,’ of the fundamental principles and symbols” (CW 10: para. 585). Hillman appropriates this passage from Jung for use as the second epigraph to his 1967 essay. The third and final epigraph from English astronomer Fred Hoyle is meant to convey the same idea: we are in a “transitional phase” from a primitive puer and senex to a sophisticated puer-et-senex way of life (30).

That men and women over the age of 18 (and sometimes into their 40s or 50s) read Young Adult fiction suggests that unconsciously if not consciously they may be seeking initiation into this more sophisticated way of life. The films thus far discussed suggest several characteristics or qualities of this way, i.e., the new puer-et-senex. First, the films and books end somewhat ambiguously or ambivalently. Rather than a decidedly triumphant tone at the end, the land and the people in it, the survivors, are emblematic of what Hillman calls the “scarred wound” or “weak-strength.” “Soft-hardness” (239). These characters experience nightmares, deal with loss, and suffer betrayal, yet they are able to go about the business of rebuilding their homes, their communities, and their relationships.

Related to this rebuilding is the role played by memory at the conclusion of these stories. In almost all of the tales the characters have the option of restoring or removing their memory so that they do or do not remember that which has gone before. Likewise, at the end of The Hunger Games series honoring the memory of the tributes and others who have died over many years is of particular importance. If as Hillman argues history has become “The Great Repressed” with the splitting of puer from senex, then their reunion undoes this repression (80).

Hillman concludes his first essay in Senex & Puer  by reiterating the notion that the ego or willful mind which has caused the split between puer and senex cannot bring them back together. In fact the ego must get out of the way. He writes, “In the absence of ego and into its emptiness an imaginal stream can flow, providing mythical solutions for the psychic connection or ‘progressive mediation’ between the senex/puer contradictions” (66).

The films discussed above are the imaginal streams of which Hillman writes. Their ideas and images provide solutions that are needed now. Psychologically these solutions can be labelled the puer-et-senex and senex-et-puer, the adolescent who has “died” or been initiated into adulthood and the adult who has reunited with his or her inner child.

Mythically these solutions are Katniss Everdeen and Robert McCall.


Note: This post concludes “The Death of Adolescence in American Culture” blog series. The next post will appear in October.


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The Death of Adolescence in American Culture, Part II


In actuality, in the first film in The Hunger Games series the conflict between puer and senex takes a while to materialize. At the beginning only one side or extreme is evident and that is the senex in its negative form. Played to perfection by Donald Sutherland, the aged President Snow (pictured above) rules over the thirteen fenced-in districts of Panem in such a way that all inhabitants live in abject poverty. Once a year in each district a male and female name are drawn from a glass bowl, a process called a Reaping, and these two individuals, or tributes, fight to the death against tributes from other districts in a televised event known as the Hunger Games.

The strict enforcement of rules and regulations, the creation of physical boundaries and the control of populations—all of these characterize the negative senex. So, too, do the coldness of the president’s name, his unfeeling proclamations, and his presiding from the Capitol like Saturn, god of agriculture. The annual reaping of male and female tributes is his harvest.

In Senex & Puer Hillman writes that Saturn also has a problematic relationship with the feminine. One incarnation of this relationship, or of Saturn’s feminine aspect, is Dame Melancholy, a figure who is depressed and moody. Sometimes she can also be the source of wisdom (263). As Saturn holds a soft spot for his feminine side, he often keeps it a secret or even imprisoned.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games the heroine of the film, Katniss Everdeen, is more Dame Melancholy, more senex adult, than she is puer rebel and idealist. Not only is she more a mother than a sibling to her younger sister Prim but at times she appears only a step or two away from the same sadness and grief that have immobilized their mother. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss also has something of a special relationship or status with President Snow; they agree not to tell lies to each other, and on more than one occasion he promises to let her live if she does what he asks.

This compact between them which lasts through much of the series begins to change just over an hour into the first film when the twelve year-old character Rue is killed during the games. Rue’s youthful innocence and selflessness remind Katniss of Prim, and her senseless death awakens something within Katniss, namely her puer aspect. After covering Rue’s lifeless body with flowers, Katniss turns and gives a farewell salute to everyone who is watching the games back home. Members of Rue’s District 11 immediately begin to riot. Something has been awakened in them, too.

Uprisings against tyrannical authority are very much in keeping with the puer trait which Hillman describes as verticality or, citing H.A. Murray, “ascensionism” (158). Hillman writes, “[W]hat matters is verticality – the break in and break with the horizontal outlook of the daily world and its incessant continuity” (159). In The Hunger Games, the incessant oppression of those living outside the Capitol must stop. The Hunger Games themselves must stop, and they do at the end of the second film, Catching Fire, when Katniss breaks through the force field over the arena and is lifted skyward into the waiting rebel hovercraft.

Ascensionism also is evident in the Divergent and Maze Runner film series. In Divergent the young heroine Triss joins with other rebels to break the tyranny of a caste-like system which divides inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic Chicago into five groups or factions. Not only must Triss confront the leader of the Erudite faction, i.e. her President Snow, but to end the faction system once and for all she must journey to the other side of the enormous fence surrounding Chicago. As a result of her actions Triss no longer is the penned-in puer. She and her fellow inhabitants are free.

Like Katniss, Triss is what Susan Rowland in Perpetual Adolescence: Jungian Analyses of American Media, Literature, and Pop Culture calls a “feminine puer” rather than puella. That is, Katniss and Triss have “the qualities of the puer hero in feminine form” (38). Qualities like fearlessness and the skilled use of weaponry in combat. As noted by Susan E. Schwartz in the same book, the puella, or adolescent female, on the other hand is “driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved […].” “Her presence lights up a room as she performs for the adulation and praise of others” (204).

On several occasions in The Hunger Games Katniss must perform in this manner as puella. She must dress up for the enjoyment of others and become “the girl on fire,” but she does so reluctantly, against her will. She prefers the peace and quiet of hunting in the woods, a bow in her hand, a quiver of arrows on her back.

Finally, the protagonist in The Maze Runner is a more traditional puer, a teenaged boy by the name of Thomas. He must lead his group of rebels through the Maze and out of the incessant continuity of life in the Glade which is their prison. With those in charge of the Maze seemingly dead or incapacitated, the first film in the series ends with Thomas and other survivors in a helicopter flying up and over the Maze walls to freedom…


Note: “The Death of Adolescence in American Culture” will conclude next month with Part III.

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