Puer Aeternus

Excerpt from the book, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood, by Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz, Ph.D.

Again, there was an enantiodromia. Von Spät had won out again by taking Melchior in the boat; a hundred years later, Melchior is in the lunatic asylum, because as soon as you are in the kingdom of intellectual reason, anything experienced at the opposite end – in Fo’s realm – seems to be sheer madness. Melchior escapes from the asylum. On the stage, when they stab von Spät, Fo wins again, this time in this world. Fo remains victorious: he finds the kingdom at last, but he leaves his body behind; von Spät gets the body. He himself is a dead old man, which means that the problem is not solved but is again postponed, because if a solution is described as taking place after death, it means that conscious means for realization have not yet been found in this reality. That is why, in Christianity, victory over evil and the union of the opposites are projected into the time after the Day of Judgment. Paradise comes after death. In Faust, Faust finds redemption after death, and in The Kingdom Without Space, the solution is again projected into after death. Here it is clear that the bridge to realization has not been found because the reality of the psyche is not realized in this fight. It is all fought in the projection – intellect against the archaic reality of the unconscious – but having no name for it and not seeing its reality, the author mixes psychic reality with concrete reality. This is also the ominous background of our present-day problem, in connection with which I would like to quote a saying of Rabelais to which Dr. Jung drew my attention: La verite dans sa forme brute est plus fausse que la faux. (Truth in its prima materia, in its first appearance, is falser than falseness itself.) And that is very true for what we have just experienced. In spite of it all, these are attempts to bring forth a new creative, religious attitude and a renewal of cultural creativeness – which can only be a psychological and individual form – but it comes up with such a disgustingly false, political twist that it is falser than wrong itself. In spite of this, however, we must turn towards it and discriminate the seeds in it. Otherwise, we are stuck and are forever building light, ‘rose-colored’ buildings upon burnt-out ruins.

In his life and art, Bruno Goetz himself has gone beyond this unsolved problem. In a poem called The Fool and the Snake, he describes the divine puer as a symbol which first overcomes, then purifies, and finally unites with, the great snake (Saint Exupéry's boa). The destructive aspect is overcome and the opposites unite in a sacred marriage; let us hope that in the collective development this, too, will follow.

If we compare the two puer figures – the little prince and Fo – you see that they have the romantic outlook on life in common, and both are opposed to senex (old man) figures such as the king, the vain man, etc. (in Saint Exupéry) or to von Spät (in Goetz). In both cases, they represent a possibility of an inner creative renewal, of a first realization of the Self, but because of a certain weakness of the ego and an insufficient or lacking differentiation of the anima, these puer figures become a lure into death or madness, or both.

An American version giving form to the puer image would be Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. But Bach’s book has a positive end: it is the love for his fellow birds which induces Jonathan to return to his flock to teach them to fly. Also, Jonathan is a bird, not a human being, so it is right for him to remain in the air. But there is a dangerous lure for a puer to identify with Jonathan and become a ‘misunderstood genius’ – but it can be also rightly understood and then bring a healing message of love, freedom, and devotion to one’s task.

In the German version of the novel by Bruno Goetz, it becomes very clear that the puer-aeternus problem is not only a personal one, but a problem of our times. The senex, the old man, is characterized as a worn-out image of God and world order, and the puer, Fo, is a new God image, which, in the novel, does not succeed to incarnate in man (in Melchior). If the new God image cannot be born in the soul of man, it remains an archetypal unconscious figure, which has dissolving and destructive effects. We are moving towards a ‘father-less society’ and the ‘son’ is not yet born, i.e., realized consciously in our psyches. This inner birth could only take place with the help of the feminine principle. That is why the collective attention has turned now to the latter. If the bitter and intriguing Sophie could become again what she was – Sophia, Divine Wisdom – this could be achieved. Then the puer could become what he was meant to be: a symbol of renewal and of the total inner man for whom the neurotic pueri aeterni of our days are unknowingly searching.

~Marie-Louise von Franz, Ph.D., Jungian analyst, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood, pp. 290-292

Inner City Books version: The Problem of the Puer Aeternus


Bruno Goetz, Der Gott und die Schlange (Zürich: Balladen, Bellerive, 1949).

Alexander Mitscherlich, Society Without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology, trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York: Schucken Book, Inc., n.d.).

C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, “Answer to Job,” pars. 609ff.