Peter Pan Syndrome

by Paul Cantrell

This is the fifth installment in our editorial seriesCan the Millennial Dissent?

Last time, I discussed the late Harold Ramis’ legacy of anti-establishment films and their impact on this generation. Well, we also lost Robin Williams this year. Today I want to talk about how this loss constitutes the second half of a one-two cultural gut-punch.

This Millennial Dissent series has been devoted to understanding our generation’s predicament and those things that may hold us back. And now it’s time to discuss something that can hit uncomfortably close to home—the refusal (or outright inability) to grow up. Peter Pan Syndrome can sometimes be a sore subject, one requiring an almost intervention-like delicacy, so first let’s have some context. Nostalgia aside, here’s a look at how we grew up learning how not to grow up.

In 1991, Robin Williams starred in a film called Hook and, like Sandy Duncan before him, became a generation’s Peter Pan. The original Peter Pan was the creation of J.M. Barrie, whose older brother died in an ice skating accident two nights before his 14th birthday.

J.M. Barrie

Barrie would go on to impersonate his older brother for his mother, the unsettling effects of which appear to have surprised only him. Some even say that Barrie physically stopped growing in a sympathetic attempt to remain forever young like his deceased brother.

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s younger brother died at 15 of rheumatic fever, and The Little Prince serves as his elegy. This book is especially significant because it provided the framework for a brilliant lecture series by Marie-Louise von Franz during the winter of 1959-60 in Zurich. Her subject: Carl Jung’s concept of the puer aeternus (pronounced POOH-air), or “eternal boy”—what we now commonly refer to as Peter Pan Syndrome.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of this book, so instead I’ll just quote the publisher’s prefatory note: “On a personal level, I can say that this book helped to save my life, in that it opened my eyes to my personal psychology at a time when I was on my knees. Dr. von Franz’s analysis of the mother-bound man pierced my heart. Tough to take, but her cogent comments on men who sounded suspiciously like me, devastating as they were to my self-image, offered an implicit alternative to killing myself.” Blurbs don’t get any better than that, folks. Seriously, read this book.

Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Peter-Pan-Wendy-Darling-walt-disney-characters-34385927-4326-3237I plan to address the “mother-bound” part of this in a forthcoming article. For now I’ll just say, as I’ve mentioned before, that it often boils down to a matter of expectation versus reality. “There is always ‘a hair in the soup,'” Franz says. “The woman is also never quite the right woman; she is nice as a girlfriend, but—. There is always a ‘but’ which prevents marriage or any kind of definite commitment. ¶This all leads to a form of neurosis which H.G. Baynes has described as the ‘provisional life,’ that is, the strange attitude that one is not yet in real life. For the time being one is doing this or that, but whether it is a woman or a job, it is not yet what is really wanted, and there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.”

“The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever,” Franz continues. “There is always a fear of being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out again. Every just-so situation is hell.” Hell because to commit to that life, any life, would be to undermine the infinite possibilities of all the other lives he could fantasize for himself.

You only live once, but the puer would sooner bask in the glow of all the lives that could be than choose just one. The trouble is that the whole time he spends choosing is just that—time—so still the days go by. And that can be a destiny all its own—a life spent in contemplation of all one’s potential lives—which is to say, no life at all.

For Jung, the solution to this general aloofness was simple: work. “Is it really as simple as all that? Is that just the one cure? Can I put it that way?” he wondered. It seems so. But we work hard, don’t we? Certainly we do. We work our asses off, often with precious little to show for it. But what Jung means, as Franz puts it, “is to work on a dreary, rainy morning when work is boring and one has to kick oneself into it; that is the one thing the puer aeternus usually cannot manage and will use any kind of excuse to avoid.” Why? Because we consider it beneath us. It’s Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis—the 9 to 5 job, far scarier than Captain Hook. It’s a question of ego.

Or, as Mark Corrigan, the straight-man of the UK’s Peep Show so eloquently puts it to his puer flatmate: “Listen, Jeremy. You don’t seem to understand. Nothing you want is ever going to happen. That’s the real world. Your hair isn’t red. People don’t walk around on stilts. Maybe somewhere you can earn a living sitting around drinking margaritas through a curly plastic straw, but in this world you’ve got to turn up, log on and grind out.”

Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.

Franz paints an eerily familiar portrait of the puer. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. “He gets up at 10:30 a.m., hangs around till lunch time with a cigarette in his mouth, giving way to his emotions and fantasies. In the afternoon he means to do some work but first goes out with friends and then with a girl, and the evening is spent in long discussion about the meaning of life. He then goes to bed at one, and the next day is a repetition of the one before, and in that way the capacity for life and the inner riches are wasted.”

Or consider this, from the liner notes of Pulp’s 1998 This Is Hardcore: “It’s OK to grow up—just as long as you don’t grow old. Face it… you are young.” Of course, this was the same album as “Help the Aged”: “Help the aged / One time they were just like you / Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue.” So maybe we can cut Jarvis Cocker some slack for at least taking the longview.

And then there’s Clive Martin’s related Vice article, which does well to point out that there’s no real incentive for this generation to grow up anyway. Maybe so. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Whatever, let’s talk about Rod Stewart. “Forever Young,” in particular.

No, I don’t mean the 1984 Alphaville song, which Parks and Rec‘s Tom Haverford performed on-hold with great aplomb.

I mean the 1988 Rod Stewart pop-rock cover of the 1973 Bob Dylan song—which also happened to be covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1978, Diana Ross in 1984, and Patti LaBelle in the 1985 Live Aid Philadelphia segment, as well as by The Pretenders in 1994, the version featured in the closing credits to Free Willy 2 in 1995.

And then there was Forever Young, the 1992 film starring Mel Gibson, despite his as yet unnoticed rampant anti-semitism. Not to mention Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, founded in 1988 and named after Peter Pan and the Lost Boys’ island home.

Rod Stewart’s song also played over the closing montage for Super Bowl XXIII in early 1989 (which Warner Music evidently removed from YouTube). In 1999, Pampers would co-opt this song to sell diapers, using a video of animals with their presumed parents.

Never to be outdone in the zeitgeist department, Toys”R”Us cashed in on this trend toward perpetual childhood as early as 1982, creating this toy store ad for our mutual edification:

“I don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if I did, I couldn’t be a Toys”R”Us kid.” There’s a thinly-veiled threat lurking in there, as if you’ll be refused access to the store upon hitting puberty. The great irony is that toy stores like Toys”R”Us marked most 80s children’s first forée into capitalism, where they brought their allowances to make their first purchases as bona fide consumers. And yes, that is Jenny Lewis (The Wizard, Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service), Jaleel White (Steve Urkel of Family Matters) and Lindsay Price (90210). Do not adjust your set.

Don’t believe me? Well, these same child actors re-shot the commercial 14 years later, as a dubious badge of honor for having not grown up.

Was there something in the water? Well, here’s something worth considering. Think about that same time period I just mentioned—mid-80s to mid-90s—as it overlaps with this sudden rash of films about man-children—more specifically, men who behave as children due to mental illness: Rain Man (1988), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Benny & Joon (1993) Forrest Gump (1994), Gary Sinise’s remake of Of Mice and Men (1992), Sling Blade (1996), and so on. I Am Sam wasn’t until 2001, but you get the point. These are the adorable puppies of the mental illness world, the darlings for whom our collective mothering impulse is nothing short of patronizing. But a mother is precisely what a puer aeternus is after, as so many 20- to 30-something girlfriends can attest. After all, every Peter needs a Wendy.

To this list of films, we could also add Big (1988), although that film has a supernatural premise. But it almost doesn’t matter. We’d become a culture obsessed with the idea of not growing up, no matter what the reason. This is what we grew up in, though only in a manner of speaking.

That’s no baseless thing, either. Narcissism as it results to the fear of death is a perfectly human, existential response. “Man’s horror of death does not merely result from the natural love of life . . . for man often hates that,” writes Edmund Spiess. “No, it is the love for the personality peculiar to him, found in his conscious possession, the love for his self, for the central self of his individuality, which attaches him to life. This self-love is an inseparable element of his being.” So it’s ok to be narcissistic? Talk to me, Spiess. “The thought of losing oneself is so unbearable for man, and it is this thought which makes death so terrible for him.” Alright, keep going. “This hopeful longing may be criticized as childish vanity, foolish megalomania; the fact remains that it lives in our hearts; it influences and rules over our imagination and endeavors.”

I feel like if Edmund Spiess were here today, he’d give me a big hug and whisper “It’s not your fault” Good Will Hunting-style. We all need that sometimes. But then he’d kick me in the ass and tell me to grow the fuck up. Because we need that too. And because some things are totally our fault.

Wasn’t that why Barrie created Peter Pan in the first place? To replace his brother who had died with one who couldn’t? One who could hold a happy thought, and let it lift him soaring into flight? It’s a perfectly healthy fantasy, isn’t it? But it looks much different up-close—among mortals, among men who should probably know better by now.

Ed Grimley

And then there were the caricatures—the man-children of the Saturday Morning Cartoon set—two in particular. The first was Martin Short’s creation, Ed Grimley. The character began in Second City improv, through Short’s remarkably prolific single SNL season, all the way to its cartoon incarnation, The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (1988), which also ran for just one season but contained a veritable who’s who of talent.

Grimley walked funny, talked funny, and danced funny. His catch phrase was “I must say,” uttered as a parody of an aging, effète, martini-swilling socialite. He was also obsessed with pop culture—Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak in particular. Although not diagnosed as mentally disabled, Ed Grimley nonetheless brought “mental” into the parlance of our time—a kind of vernacular assist or alley-oop which Wayne’s World (1992) would slam dunk a few years later.

Still, perhaps no one tapped into this phenomenon quite like Paul Reubens’ character, Pee-wee Herman. “What makes me laugh,” David Letterman once remarked, “is that it has the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it’s being controlled by the incubus—the manifestation of evil itself.” That’s the Pan part of Peter Pan, the satyr trickster.

The Dark Side of Twee

There’s a deep-seated hostility seething beneath the surface of the twee man-child, along with a sense that his innocence is somewhat feigned. Like the time Pee-wee wore mirrors on his shoes to look up girls’ skirts. Or when Cowboy Curtis (the first gig Lawrence Fishburne got after lying about his age for Apocalypse Now) had to stay on the porch during Pee-wee’s Pajama Party because he would only sleep in the nude. Reubens didn’t just slip all of this past the regular daytime TV censors. Again, this stuff aired during Saturday morning cartoons, people. (Also check out this comprehensive study of Pee-wee’s on-air innuendo and adult humor from GSU’s own Nedda Ahmed.)

Pee-wee Herman

Pee-wee’s go-to defense—”I know you are, but what am I?”—brings with it a critique of our very notion of identity itself. It could just as well be the Gen Xer or Millennial’s lament to the Boomer generation. That is, I know you are—I know that this has worked for you—but what the hell am I supposed to be? He refuses to be identified, pigeonholed or even named. He embodies identity’s elasticity. He’s rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you project upon him bounces off and sticks to you.

Kurt Cobain, whose 1994 death may well have been our generation’s JFK assassination, addressed his suicide note to his childhood imaginary friend, Boddah. One could well argue that such a puer‘s suicide may constitute the ultimate refusal to grow up.

Doctor Who‘s 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) may well be the quintessential puer aeternus, emphasis on the eternal. He flies about to far-off worlds, unable to grow up, all with the help of his redhead Wendy lookalike, Amelia Pond (Karen Gillan), who refers to him as her imaginary friend in each episode’s intro. Peter Pan mistakes Wendy’s daughter, Jane, for her mother since he has no concept of time passing while in Neverland. He later does the same with her granddaughter, Margaret. [ACTUAL SPOILERS HERE] A similar confusion occurs with Dr. River Song, whose final advice to Amy is, “Never let him see the damage, and never, ever let him see you age. He doesn’t like endings”. The 11th Doctor, though brilliant, is also an utter narcissist subject to violent tantrums, incapable of receiving any modicum of criticism. Starting to sound familiar?

But back to Robin Williams. He wasn’t just our Peter Pan. He was also (despite countless other roles, too many to list here) the benevolent father-figure to a puer in need. That boy was Will Hunting (Matt Damon), the misunderstood genius every underachieving puer hopes himself to be. Will outed himself by solving seemingly impossible theorems on the hallway chalkboard at MIT, and just a year before Max Fischer dreamt of solving the Hardest Geometry Problem in the World in Rushmore (1998).

A few close friends and I used to play a game called It’s Not Your Fault Chicken. We don’t play that game anymore. Based on the above breakthrough moment of Good Will Hunting, the premise was simple: walk up to a friend at some random interval and say “It’s not your fault.” Repeatedly. It was a kind of staring match. Whoever broke into laughter first lost. Now, just months after Williams’ death, it’s still too soon. It will forever be too soon.

But there’s something people tend to forget about that scene, so much so that the above clip ends before the moment even occurs. The camera pulls back, and Williams says, “Fuck them, ok?” Maybe that’s the hidden takeaway lesson here. We can scapegoat the media all we want, but ultimately the responsibility, the sheer onus of that, is still on us. It’s not our fault. Still, maybe it’s time to grow up.

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