Thursday, May 28, 2015

Peter Breaks Through: The Mystical in "Peter Pan"

Since before I can remember, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan story has both captured my imagination and touched my heart. As to why this is, I'm not sure. It might be because the first stuffed animal I bonded with was a version of the crocodile from Disney's rendition of the story. It might also be because of my Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis, and because other "aspies" have taken to saying that they are from the "wrong planet," as if we too came from the sky.

But the more I reflect and observe, the more I realize Peter Pan's significance for us all. In fact, Peter Pan is a spiritual archetype deeply embedded in our souls. We know him by other names, yes--the Greek god Hermes, the Little Prince, or even the Doctor from Doctor Who (particularly 11)--but his bursting life, his simultaneous innocence and cheek, and his eternality have always "broken through" to our collective consciousness in one form or another. We see it in myth: Icarus and Phaethon trying to reach and break through the utmost limits of the sky. He, surprisingly, also breaks through in history: think of Michael Jackson and his dance steps that seem never to touch the ground, of Mozart and his soaring melodies. But notice that in each of these cases, Peter ends in tragedy. Icarus plunges into the sea (much as the pilot and author Antoine de St. Exupery did just a year after penning The Little Prince) and Phaethon burns up; The Doctor can't stop dying and regenerating; Michael Jackson, Mozart, and countless other young prodigies die young and tragically.

 Jungian psychology has a name for this archetype: the "puer aeternus" or "eternal child," "puer" for short. Writing on the puer and the above topic, the master psychologist James Hillman writes:

"[The puer] must be weak on earth, because it is not at home on earth. The beginnings of things are Einfalle; they fall in one one from above as gifts of  the puer, or sprout up from the ground as daktyls, as flowers. But there is difficulty at the begining; the child is in danger, easily gives up. The horizontal world, the space-time continuum, which we call 'reality,' is not its world. So the new dies easily because it is not born in the Diesseits, and this death confirms it in eternity. Death does no matter because the puer gives the feeling that it can come again another time, make another start. Mortality points to immortality; danger only heightens the unreality of 'reality' and intensifies the vertical connection." -"Senex and Puer:  An Aspect of the Historical and Psychological Present," James Hillman

Peter flies because he is not at home on earth; he knows that if he were to try walking, he would have to hobble. For the glow of his fairy dust is really the light of eternity shining through. Peter Pan is eternity as it manifests in time--like its status beyond history, Peter seems unconcerned with schedules and deadlines, delaying his return to Wendy's house by as much as a generation. And of course he never grows old--time seems not to leave a mark on him, and the innocent naivete of childhood persists through his life as though the cruelties of history did not exist. 

We can see Peter in anyone who seems ill-adapted to life, but who harbors a well of talent that seems unbounded. We all know the type: the socially awkward math genius, the chess savant, the neurotic musician or painter. Even I--as someone with high-functioning autism--suspect his role in my life and that diagnosis. These people may be unable to deal with society's demands, but you can bet your life that society would not be able to survive without the regular influx of fairy dust that Peter provides. The puer's wounds--whether it be the Doctor's regeneration energy or Christ's blood (Christ, as the Son, being a kind of eternal child)--sustain and nourish the world. If we didn't have Mozart's symphonies, Turing's computer, or Kurt Cobain's Nirvana (nirvana as, of course, the puer's escape from the wheel of history), the world would be a sadder, lonelier place.

But where does Peter, the puer, call home? If he longs for nirvana--an escape from history, complication, attachment--where can he finally put his feet up, stop fidgeting, and relax? Of course, the answer is Neverland. Neverland is the land that refuses to be pinned down or mapped, that place where you can "never land." To put it differently, Neverland is the place beyond place, or better, the place hiding between places. Perhaps the philosopher Henry Corbin puts it best when he describes the Sufi concept of the Na-koja-Abad, translated as--interestingly enough--"the land of No-where":

"The word Na-koja-Abad does not designate something like unextended being, in the dimensionless state. The Persian word abad certainly signifies a city, a cultivated and peopled land, thus something extended....Topographically, he [Sohravardi] states precisely that this region begins 'on the convex surface' of the Ninth Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres, or the Sphere that includes the whole of the cosmos. This means that it begins at the exact moment when one leaves the supreme Sphere, which defines all possible orientation in the world (or on this side of the world), the 'Sphere' to which the celestial cardinal points refer. [Mormons reading this; notice connections to Abraham 3's discussion of Kolob and other "planets"] Thus the name Na-koja-Abad; a place outside of place, a 'place' that is not contained in a place, in a topos, that permits a response, with a gesture of the hand, to the question 'where?'" -"Mundus Imaginalis," Henry Corbin

(Devoted readers of my blog will perhaps notice a connection to Swedenborg's description of heaven, which Henry Corbin was not hesitant to point out. Swedenborg's heaven, too, is a "never-land"--a place that exists beyond all place, one that cannot exist within the confines of earthly (or astronomical) maps or charts. I think that the same archetypal power influencing Swedenborg and J. M. Barrie persisted even in the creators of the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan; Swedenborg's heaven is also "a place where dreams are born," "where time is never planned" and one that your heart can reach if it "thinks of lovely things.")

Peter is at home beyond all space and time, and so distance and duration threaten him. The knots of indirection, discipline, and patience upset him. He wants freedom, direct flight, soaring transcendence of limitation. But of course the world doesn't work like that. Is Peter doomed to die young whenever he pops up in the world? Must he always return, like the Little Prince, to his star? Though events seem to suggest that he must, I think there is another way. Peter should neither flee back to Neverland or become a "grownup;" there is a third option, and I want to discuss it for the rest of this post.

Peter Pan longs for a mother. For some reason, though he disdains the idea of grownups, he feels that something is missing from his life, and that something is precisely the care and comfort that a mother provides. And while not a mother, the Little Prince's flower also provides a feminine presence that proves indispensable to a puer. You see, the puer is caught in a dichotomy between boy and man, Peter Pan and Captain Hook. He never stops to consider that this dichotomy--as exclusively masculine--ignores a third position that embraces and contains both perspectives. This perspective is that of the mother--the symbolically feminine receptivity that is neither flighty child nor workaholic grownup, but the link between them. 

This can all be further symbolized by the most distinctive part of feminine anatomy: the womb. The womb as a vessel both receives life and gives it; it acts as a bridge between the opposite polarities of boy and grownup, Peter Pan and Mr. Darling, stickler and pick-up-sticks. Instead of bitterly holding secrets in (grownup) or spilling them out to whomever will hear (puer), it bridges between openness and secrecy through an alternation of flow and containment. Peter might long for a mother, and surely a mother's love would give him this peace that lies beyond duality to an extent, but there is another way for him to access feminine receptivity: Peter must be wounded.

For the puer, wound=womb. The pain and suffering that one might delay until a tragedy at the end of life then comes early on, and stays with him as a a scar--a reminder of his vulnerability, this opening as an invitation toward inwardness and containment. Thus being wounded, Peter Pan would become like Christ, whose wounds enabled him to succor his spiritual children, or the Little Prince, whose injury by snake bite enabled him to reunite with his beloved rose. Peter Pan's wound would then be a mother for him, enabling him to deal with the stresses of life without having to sacrifice his vivacity and eternal spirit.

For that is the secret: grownup and boy are united in the feminine principle. Luce Irigaray was surely touching on this principle when she referred to the female sex as "the sex which is not one"--comfortable with multiplicity and unresolved duality. This means connecting the vertical and the horizontal (Christ's cross), eternity and time, nirvana and samsara, Neverland and Terra Firma. We might remind ourselves of the Doctor and his two hearts--he who is himself two, capable of compassionate duplicity, of being both human and alien, old man and boy, here and there (we might also recall the Tardis as a feminine being, both as referred to and in its internal similarity to a womb). For like the Doctor, Christ, the Little Prince, or even Odysseus and his wound, every instance of Peter Pan's breakthrough must temper itself with receptivity and containment, seeing the kiss in the thimble. He must learn to have his hurts mother him, to stop running from danger but to embrace the salt and blood of life as a teacher and a nurturer. He then, in a way, grows up, but not irrevocably; he maintains the life and dexterity of the puer while also having the earthiness and sustainability of the old man or "senex."

But above all we must remember Peter's necessity. Even if he never learns to grow up, none of us should ever forget the value of his breakthroughs, his infusions of fairy dust into the dirt and sweat of life. Without him as a guide, we are lost even more irrevocably than we have ever been. For Peter is always there at the window--to Neverland, to Asteroid B612, to eternity--and we will always need him.

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