Persona or Authentic Self: Time to Change your Wardrobe?

Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach is a story from the Middle Ages of knightly exploits and romance centering around the Grail Quest.

The title character, Parzival, is an uncouth youth when he stumbles upon knights for the first time.  Observing these noble men he unhesitatingly and with determination decides to become a knight.  This intention is the first expression of a budding awareness of himself which plainly reveals–although in the form of a childish wish to begin with–what will prove to be his ultimate goal and true vocation.  Parzival is more than a story about a man in need of self-knowledge.  It is a tale of a unique individual in need of realizing his authentic self.

Although Parzival is young, inexperienced, and untrained, early in the story he engages the renowned Red Knight in battle and slays him.  Untutored in noble action, he removes the knight’s armor from the dead body and dons it himself, effectively concealing his own identity and simultaneously impersonating the true Red Knight.

As the story unfolds, Parzival receives expert training and becomes a true knight in and of himself. He does not need to masquerade as one with a spurious costume.  Parzival conceals his identity, continues to impersonate the Red Knight, or is misidentified until all but the final chapter of the book.  It is only in the final chapter where Parzival satisfies the Grail requirement, releases the Grail King from his ongoing torment, heals the Wasteland, and himself becomes the Grail King that identity issues fade from a prominent position in the story line.

Although Parzival commandeers the Red Knight’s armor and wears this military shell for most of the story, the Red Knight’s armor does not constitute Parzival’s true identity.  Through this costume his identity is confused with someone else.  In fact, the Red Knights armor constitutes a persona, a mask, with which Parzival presents himself to the world.  Emma Jung, C.G. Jung’s wife, so effectively describes Parzival and the Red Knight’s armor that I quote her at length.  Referencing Chrétien de Troyes’ version, Perceval, she says:

It is noteworthy that Perceval puts the armour on over his coarse Welsh undergarment, from which he will not be parted.  On the one hand this means that he feels the armour is essentially a part of him, on the other that basically he is not yet a knight, as he would wish to be, but only exhibits a knightly exterior.  This corresponds to the concept that analytical psychology designates as the persona (mask).  The term “mask” indicates that it is not the essential nature of an individual that is concealed behind the exterior and that a certain impression is the result when seen from the outside.  To some extent, therefore, the persona forms a façade and is usually so constituted as to be suitable to the society in which the individual lives; for this reason Jung considers it a segment of the collective psyche.  This means that the individual appears merely as a member of a race, clan, professional class, etc., and not as a human being with his own unique characteristics.  Such a persona comes into existence more or less automatically, since the human being belongs to a particular nation and a particular family or class whose traits of character and way of life he shares.  [. . .] At first he has simply to accept the role which falls to him as his share of the family or society to which he belongs.  Consequently one is the child, the son, the daughter, the young man, the marriageable girl, the father of a family, the wife, the mother, the representative of a particular profession and so on.  It is accordingly significant that Perceval does not know his own name, knows himself only as cher filz, beau filz or beau sire–the words his mother used in addressing him [. . .]

[…] the persona is not to be understood as nothing but a mask, as a wish to simulate something before the world; it is also an important and necessary mode of adaptation.  [. . .] The persona deteriorates into a mere mask when it no longer fulfills its purpose but only conceals a void or worse, therefore falsifying the essential nature of the individual (emphasis my own).  At the same time the persona-like clothing offers a defense against the world without which the individual would be all too vulnerable.  It also often represents, in a way, a prototype or ideal of what is to be achieved, of what one hopes to realize.  Thus it can serve as a valuable guideline.  But when the ideal is wrongly chosen, when it is unattainable or unsuited to the individual nature, then striving towards it can often lead one into error.

The Red Knight’s armor may constitute the means of recognition or an identity to those who see Parzival or hear about him.  However, Parzival’s armor is “only a defense against the world” protecting Parzival in his vulnerable state as he moves from being a youth to adulthood.  For Parzival, the armor is not an ideal wrongly chosen.  In fact, it represents a prototype or ideal of what Parzival is to achieve or hopes to realize. Nonetheless, it is a persona.

Sometimes an individual will identify almost completely with a social role, a piece of literal ego-history, or a persona-mask.  At other times there may be an unconscious identification with some universal pattern, an archetypal configuration, a collective and primordial image.  The problem is that the person is neither some social role nor an archetype.  Parzival, when he becomes the Grail King, realizes his true vocation.  His identity is not limited to this role and the persona-image of the Red Knight’s armor is no longer needed.  His sense of self is stable and his authentic role is only a portion of this newly realized sense of self.

From her book, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz says that in fairy tales “generally, we interpret clothes as having to do with the persona.”   For example, Little Red Riding Hood may be identified by an article of clothing within her community, however, the comment by von Franz suggests that the clothing equated as a persona is a superficial covering and is not her true identity.

Bruno Bettelheim in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales points out that in fairy tales “at the tale’s end the hero has mastered all trials and despite them remained true to himself [herself], or in successfully undergoing them has achieved his [her] true selfhood.” That is, at the end of the tale the character’s persona is no longer needed as a protective device.

In our everyday social context, a persona may be a defense against the world or it may be a prototype of a future intended achievement. Through these stories we garner an understanding of persona and identity and learn to differentiate between them.  We then may recognize that the province of the individual is to accept the task to discard the identity assigned by society and assume a more authentic personal identity which is rarely identical to the persona.

Ponder what’s in your closet. Is your wardrobe a defense against the world or a prototype of something authentic and true?  Has your “persona” deteriorated into a mere mask no longer fulfilling its purpose but only concealing a void or worse, therefore falsifying your essential nature? Are you in need of updating your wardrobe?

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Guide and Pilgrim Archetypal Images in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Whether we are on a quest for animal photography in Africa, attempting to traverse the corporate maze, or maintain some semblance of equanimity in the demands of parenting who can we turn to for guidance? Too often in this journey we call life we begin the journey without a guide and rarely find one along the way.

Where is the guide we can turn to?

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Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso shows us what the archetypal guide can be to the weary pilgrim. An example comes from Book One, Inferno. In Canto VIII we meet rebel angels who invite Dante’s guide, Virgil, to desert Dante. This is a significant point in the canto.

The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place of hell inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate his situation.  Without Virgil, could he continue? Without Virgil could he return to his everyday world? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil, “returning here seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

Forget your fear, no one can hinder/our passage; One so great has granted it. / . . .feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I / will not abandon you in this low world.

There is a two way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He or she is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. The one on the quest should not falter in determination to gain the journey’s end nor hinder the guide. In great measure, the pilgrim should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante:

You—though I am vexed— /Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored, once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly. What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And, is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

I do not envy Dante his journey, but, I am slightly envious of his remarkable guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey nor can we return to journey’s starting point without a guide, it’s no wonder that so many of us falter or even fail for lack of one. In a culture where guidance is often rejected in the name of independence, Dante’s image and commentary remind us of the value of this age-old companion.

The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

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The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.


Mundus Imaginalis – A Panel Discussion

Recently, I was reviewing class notes from university courses I took, now over a decade ago. I came across this little gem on a panel discussion on the Mundus Imaginalis or imaginal world. James Hillman credits Henry Corbin as the source of this notion. Corbin, a French philosopher, is principally known for his interpretation of Islamic thought. From Corbin comes from the idea that the mundus archetypalis is also the mundus imaginalis. The mundus imaginalis offers an ontological mode of locating the archetypes of the psyche as the fundamental structures of the imagination or as fundamentally imaginative phenomena that are transcendent to the world of sense in their value if not their appearance. (This from James Hillman’s book: Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).

Hopefully this little summary of the panel discussion will open up the notion of “imaginal” for you and help you to differentiate it from “image” or “imaginative”.  And, remember: The primary and irreducible language of archetypal patterns is the metaphorical discourse of myths.

Panel Discussion of the “Mundus Imaginalis”

Our group discussion fairly immediately came across the first obstacle regarding the imaginalis, that of language. The difficulty of translating the experience and the “language” of the imaginal into everyday reality is much the same as attempting to fit a mystical shape into a practical mold. (The group also did not overlook the aspect of translating Arabic terms into English, which is already one step removed from the original translation of mystical to “sensible”). The danger of misinterpretation lies deep in the heart of any translation. When we talk about the levels and layers of meaning within culture, we are immediately at the mercy of the danger of our own assumptions. These assumptions of course come from the core of our own cultural schemata and its inherent limitations.

The limitations of our scientific civilization – which is said to have gained mastery over images, and is even referred to as the “civilization of the image” – are in its radical misunderstanding, or complete misapprehension of the image (the root and vehicle of the imaginal). Instead of the image being raised to the level of the world to which it belongs, instead of being invested with a symbolic function that would lead to inner meaning, the image tends to be reduced simply to the level of sensible perception and thus to be definitely degraded. Might one not have to say that the greater the success of this reduction, the more people lose their sense of the imaginal and the more they are condemned to produce nothing but fiction. In other words (worlds), the image/imaginal is brought down to the lowest common denominator and thus completely loses its potency.

If all is thus lost in translation, how can the imaginal be communicated? Perhaps this is entirely the wrong question, the wrong approach. At one point in our group discussion a subtle shift occurred that we might not have been quite conscious of at the time. This shift revealed itself in the realization that one cannot truly communicate one’s imaginal level of experience fully, directly or even clearly. But that we may be able to “read” or receive another’s experience of the imaginal as it connects to our own. The other’s experience/communications then acts as a trigger for us to enter our own imaginal experience. In other words, the memory of our own experience of the imaginal can be triggered by that of the other person’s; can create an entry point to the imaginal. And that creativity could in fact be a process of the magneticism of these entry points; invitations to the openings, so to speak.

From this vantage point we may be able to admit that we cannot communicate the imaginal because of the limitations of our “language”. But that this limitation is certainly not imposed on the imaginal, as it communicates to us constantly through forms that exist within and without us. And that truly our task and desire, even compulsion is to give shape to its integrity; To give color to its ecstasy; To know its gnosis; To step into the dimension of non-duality; To step out of time. And to do all of this we must access a certain kind of vulnerability that is a suspension of all we know yet maintaining a sense of all knowing. The quintessential paradox that creates an incredible surge of energy that may override the sense of helplessness we are confronted with in our constant struggle to give form to the formless, fitting the mystical into the sensible. Perhaps if we were to magically pull a mystical shape out of a practical mold we might finally be making meaning rather than just making sense.

Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite: The Beauty/Soul Connection – Part III

In Part II of this series (Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite Part II), I explored three of the four tasks demanded of Psyche by her future mother-in-law, Aphrodite, from the story of “The Invisible Lover” which is a chapter in the greater work of The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass).

Here, I continue my reflections on this myth with the fourth and final task.

Psyche’s success at accomplishing the previous three (seemingly impossible) tasks set before her does nothing to satisfy Aphrodite. Instead Psyche’s accomplishments tend to whip the frenzy of Aphrodite’s wrath into higher intensity.

In the fourth task Aphrodite sends Psyche to the depths of hell to gather a small bit of the beauty of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, and deliver it to Aphrodite “with all speed.” Many descend to the Underworld, few return.  This fourth task appears to be beyond impossible.

As with the first three tasks, in this fourth task Psyche receives outside guidance.  However, this time it comes from an unusual source: a tower. Previously Psyche’s helpers have been from nature (ants, a water reed, and an eagle). The tower is a manmade object. It tells her how to get to the Underworld.  The Dead find this easy.  For the living, the descent is a demanding task all by itself.  And, of course, the return is rare indeed.  However, by heeding the tower’s advice, Psyche successfully descends and returns to the human realm of the living with the desired potion safely sealed and with a strong edict not to open it.

All the tasks Aphrodite cruelly demanded Psyche was able to accomplish as directed, much to Aphrodite’s chagrin. Now, with this final task, Psyche disobeys the powerful goddess of beauty. She does not deliver Persephone’s beauty cream. Psyche, overwrought that she lacks the divine beauty that the person she loves, Eros, would desire, she does the forbidden; she breaks the seal of the container holding the beauty from Persephone, that even the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, holds in high esteem.

When the seal is broken, instead of divine beauty, a thick cloud of slumber pours over Psyche and she collapses as if a sleeping corpse. If the story were to end here, we might say that Psyche overstepped her bounds and brought about her own demise. How often it seems we struggle and when we are close to success we give up or give in. The soul’s journey is fraught with obstacles. In this particular myth, these obstacles are set by divine beauty in the path of mortal beauty. And if this is where the story ended, it would seem the soul is not up to what is required of it.

Significantly, this is not the end of the story. Her beloved, Love himself, comes to her aid. He takes the sleep off Psyche and returns it to its container. Psyche continues her return to Aphrodite with the beauty from Persephone as originally required.

In the meantime, Eros marches to Mt. Olympus and pleads to his father god, Zeus. Zeus is swayed and admits Psyche to the halls of the Olympian gods.  Psyche is made immortal making her an acceptable wife in Aphrodite’s eyes for her son, Eros, and accepts her as a legitimate daughter-in-law.

If you recall, during all these trials and tribulations, Psyche was pregnant.  The child’s name that came of the union between Love and Soul (Eros and Psyche) is Pleasure.

This is a sophisticated myth and there are many interpretations of it.  I find it meaningful that it brings together Soul, Beauty, and Love in close familial ties. Aphrodite is not the the beauty of wilderness; that is the realm of Artemis. Aphrodite’s realm is the realm of culture.  Aphrodite is present when we make everyday life more beautiful and more ‘civilized.’  The art of Aphrodite often celebrates the beauty of life and reflects the divine in daily aspect.

This story is a story of Soul’s awakening.  Psyche enters the story as a beautiful but naive shallow untried girl who lacks the ability to discern. Psyche’s tasks represent the transformation of beauty of the natural soul into the beauty of a loving conscious soul.  The soul of mortals may innately be beautiful, but this tale reminds us that beauty is not enough. The soul’s awakening is a process in beauty. Beauty without soul is Apollonic aesthetics (line, form, frame, etc). Soul without Beauty is immature and incomplete. The trials that Aphrodite caused Psyche to undergo transforms the ignorant and naïve girl into a woman who was aware of what love costs and who knows at last the true face of her husband. If you reflect on your own life, undoubtedly you will find examples where your personal growth was comprised of these three elements (soul, love and beauty) making demands that formed and tempered you into a mature balanced whole.

Psyche’s story show us the birth of a new self, forged out of her pain and her growing capacity to disobey. She disobeys mortal and divine laws primarily due to her expanding commitment to love.

An often required component in fairy tales is an injunction not to do something.  If the protagonist is to succeed in many wonder tales, this injunction must be broken.  Here, too, in this myth, disobeying is precisely what leads to attainment of the desired outcome.  I am not suggesting that you go out and find a law to break.  Rather, think about that voice in your head that tells you “It must be done this way” or “Don’t do that”.  What is the origin of that voice?  Is it a parent?; a minister?; a coach?; etc.  Reflect on the relevance of that injunction in your current adult life.  Is it time for you to nurture a “growing capacity to disobey” those injunctions of childhood that are no longer relevant?

For much of this story, Psyche and Aphrodite are prominent and Eros is off stage.  Soul and Beauty are front and center.  One way to view this narrative is as a depiction of the connection soul and beauty have in the growing, maturing, and creative process. The path of balancing this connection of Beauty and Soul is arduous. It requires a commitment to love, a stout heart, and perseverance. The reward is the experience of the divine.

Where in your life are you exposed to beauty in art?; beauty in nature?; beauty in personal care?These are pathways to nurture, soothe or enliven the soul. Next time you are aware of an experience of beauty such as a sunset, fragrance, spa treatment, etc., try to envision it as an opportunity for soul to take flight. (Psyche in art was often depicted as a butterfly or moth.)  Listen to music and dance; abandon yourself to color at a paint store, touch every bolt of cloth at a fabric store. Immerse yourself in an experience of beauty and watch soul’s reaction.


If you are interested in pursuing this myth further, try these sources:
Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann

The Myth of Analysis by James Hillman

The Golden Ass of Apuleius by Marie-Louise von Franz

The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia by Ginette Paris

“The beauty which brings desire is closer to a ‘state of grace’ and is composed more of audacity and charm than by conformity with an external norm.” – Ginette Paris