The Intoxicating Power of Flight (“Puermen & Ironmen”)

The story of Icarus provides one of the more widely known examples from mythology of the puer aeternus, or eternal youth, an archetypal figure introduced in the two prior Mythfire posts. Impetuous, curious, “intoxicated with the power to fly,” and deaf to his father’s warnings, Icarus flies so close to the sun that his newly made waxen wings melt from the heat. He falls out of the sky and to his tragic, untimely death in the sea.[1]

The painting accompanying this blog is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, most likely a copy of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from the late 1550s. Take a moment now to look at the painting before reading the following excerpt from a poem by W.H. Auden.

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden seems to suggest, then, that some things hadn’t changed in the almost four hundred years spanning the period from Brueghel’s painting to Auden’s 1938 poem. Perhaps they haven’t changed even to the present day. As conveyed in the painting and the poem, many people, so busy with their duties and routines, do not take much note of – much less learn from – the rise and fall of others. And yet that which we don’t learn from may indeed be doomed to be repeated. Finally, once puer energies are also observed in their collective forms such as national identities, governmental policies, corporate strategies and more, we see just how consequential for everyone the ungrounded or intoxicated “the sky’s the limit” puer can be. (See Fate of America by analytical psychologist Michael Gellert for more on the collective forms and impact of the puer.)

Of course, other individuals predisposed to turning a blind eye to Icaran downfalls are kindred puer aeterni, other eternal youths. Invincibility is perceived by them to be its own metallic shield. Puermen all too easily become Ironmen. However, to return to an image from the post which started this brief series, the puer aeternus somehow needs to learn that though his Ironman persona may feel like an “F-18,” even these and similar aircraft are not impervious to overheated circuitry, systems failures, or the resulting plummet out of the sky — as recent events have shown. [2]

For the Icaran or Ironman puer the hardest lesson to pay attention to may just be this: death is irreversible, even if no one else stops what they’re doing long enough to notice.


Next Monday: The Adventures of Solar Phallus Man…

[1] The quote comes from Ann Yeoman’s Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth, p. 53. Yeoman’s discussion of Icarus continues on to p. 54 and 55, where she includes the Bruegel painting and Auden poem.

[2] Charlie Sheen recently likened himself to an F-18. Also, though not an F-18, the crash roughly two weeks ago of an F-15E  in Libya — due to an “equipment malfunction” — shows that such planes are not inherently invincible. ( Sticking with Sheen: just as one may easily find Ironman-like “invincibility” in Sheen’s “Warlock” persona, the power of intoxication is also quite evident, i.e. in Sheen’s creative zeal, in the abuse of alcohol and drugs, and in the energy behind such statements  as “I’m on a drug, it’s called Charlie Sheen.” ( Sheen would do well to remember that his beloved Adonis was no stranger to intoxication either: Adonis was born of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her intoxicated father. As has also already been mentioned, Adonis’s wild boar-blood was another fatal form of intoxication — akin to Sheen’s “tiger-blood.” Finally and most recently, Sheen has been in the news for his new stand-up routine entitled “My Violent Torpedo of Truth,” the debut of which apparently”bombed” (


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