Trump and Biden, Senex and Puer

On this momentous day, when Proud Boys and other Trump supporters menace the Capitol and the Congress inside debates the challenges to Biden’s electoral victory, I think of the Jungian concept of senex and puer.

James Hillman | NWA Friends of Jung
James Hillman, Jungian psychologist, 1926–2011.

According to James Hillman (1926–2011), a prominent Jungian, the senex or old man (as in the English word “senescent” and “senile”) is the figure of “tradition, stasis, structure & authority,” while the puer or boy (as in “puerile” or “puberty”) is an amalgam of insight, fantasy, rebellion, creativity. (See “James Hillman on the Archetypes of the Senex and the Puer.”)

You might think that these two archetypes of Jungian psychology are dualistic, opposite, irreconcilable — as Trump’s Proud Boys and us not-so- proud or sure-of-what-we-have-to-be-proud-of boys appear to be. There is plenty of conflict and mutual contempt to go around, the gods know. But Hillman sees these archetypes otherwise, in a way that might lend hope to our political as well as artistic landscapes, among others.

In his words, senex and puer are a “union of sames,” or “not so much a marriage of opposites as a confluence of Consciousness — a dance of attitudes & sensibilities.”

Just about any good story has this drama and conflict of old and new. Just about any good story — literary, corporate, political — goes through this battle of attitudes that ends in reconciliation, if not in terms of plot or character (all characters), then in the minds of the readers, those of us who may be not so proud as reflective and who see and acknowledge the need to sit tight and accommodate the voices of the people, uproarious and furious as they may be.

(Beat. Pause. Rest.)

 Trump mob
A Trump mob attempts to break into the Capitol, while Capitol police draw their guns.

Menace the Capitol is right! I see just now on TV, after starting to write this piece, that Trump’s mob has broken into the Capitol, and the cops and National Guard have been called out. This is taking the puerile side of the puer role too far. Odd and ironic, isn’t it? Trump, the old man, should be senex, authority, though his behavior is more often that of an infant throwing tantrums. The mob seems to have taken the cue from baby Trump. If it can’t get its way, it will scream and yell and holler till Daddy or Mommy provide what it wants.

It may be a long while before Trump’s fascist authority is put to rest, and if it’s not we’re in for a long dark night. I can only hope that idealistic calls for unification, whether Jung’s or Joe Biden’s, will be answered in the affirmative. That the people will acknowledge our authority and freedom. Isn’t there enough maturity, as well as juvenile resistance, in us all?



William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)