the instincts perceptions of themselves

Here’s an image that may not have popped into your stream of consciousness for the last 24 hours—the flying dutchman. Remember the ghost ship destined to sail the ocean for the rest of eternity never to port? This idea was something I used to go months, weeks, days, epochs, etc. without checking in with. And now that I’m no longer enmeshed within the domestic family it is something that runs through my mind, AT LEAST five times every day. ; — )

I was introduced to the concept of Flying Dutchman Syndrome in Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self by Anthony Stevens. The book is an exploration of the biological evidence for Jung’s theory of the archetypes. In Jungian thought, the psyche is, roughly speaking, a kind of microcosm for all possible conscious states in human beings. The archetypes are described as “the riverbeds through which circumstances might induce libido to flow” (Stevens 143) or the arrangements of being that have historically occupied and continue to live on in the minds of people, despite vast differences in life circumstances.

Stevens describes the psychological trauma that results from our care takers’ inability to meet our early needs in childhood as the “frustration of archetypal intent.”  These primal frustrations are regulated to the unconscious and subtly create the conditions in which we think. Stevens devotes a chapter to the concept of the mother due to its extreme importance in the development of the ego-self axis, or “the spinal column for future individuality and autonomy” (Stevens 95). The self, as director of the psyche in its totality, negotiates the development of the ego, and future security is determined by the unfolding of this process. “The Self is to ego what the parent is to the child; it also resembles the relationship envisaged by the great world religions as existing between god and man, for the ego is, in a manner of speaking, the Self’s representative on earth, (i.e. in outer reality) (Stevens 92). The ego is a single constellation of the much more expansive Self, which includes both the material available for conscious understanding as well as the material which underwrites the conscious personality that has been relegated to the unconscious.

One important stop on the child’s journey towards recognizing himself as a *relatively* autonomous being is his (satisfactory) experience of mother-child dynamic, the expectation for which comes programmed in the psyche of every human being. As Stevens suggests, the parent-child dynamic was written into the phylogenetic blue print for the human experience. Because the infant is born at a period in his development which renders him much more vulnerable than other mammals, he has an innate need to be protected, and the urgency of this need (along with his obvious lack of cognitive sophistication) causes the child to see the mother as indistinguishable from survival, as well as indistinguishable from himself. During his most vulnerable years he sees her as essentially the embodiment of the great mother archetype, rather than an autonomous, unique individual. The degree to which he experiences his mother as well spring of love and protection (aka, the degree to which she fits into the mold of the mother as archetype which came programmed into his psyche) determines the integrity of the ego-self axis, which in turn informs the level of security the adult possesses later in life.

To further intensify the dynamic effect on the psyche the mother-child relationship represents, Stevens, along with Jung, suggests that the process of differentiating between ego and caregivers constitutes a crucial step in the developmental process. “Only gradually, as the child’s ego -consciousness grows and he begins to recognize his parents as persons in their own right distinct from himself , do the parental archetypes –Mother (in both her Good and Terrible aspects) and Father — differentiate out of the archetypal totality which is the self” (Stevens 92). Just as there are restorative and destructive elements of nature, the simultaneously dangerous and protective elements of the mother underscore the parent child-bond, and an understanding of how to confront these dynamics must be obtained in order for the child to proceed towards normal development. My sense is that if the integrity of the relationship between the individual child and the individual parent were based solely on the concrete interactions between the two then it would be much easier for things to go well—all you have to do is feed the infant when he cries, change his clothes when dirty etc. but here is where this all becomes more complex– because all humans also have the capacity for reproductive potential (though obviously there are individuals who, for various reasons, are exempt from this rule) parents come equipped with expectations around the role a child will play in their life. Things get prickly, particularly for the child, when she fails to meet the needs of the parent’s puer aeternus (eternal child) projection, and in response the mother fails to or refuses to meet the child’s most basic needs. Because children or young adults tend to lack the ability to give voice to their unconscious dynamics, a lot of damage can be done to the ego, and the rest of the psyche, as a consequence.

Because the parent-child relationship proceeds on the basis of archetypal projections, (and is therefore also indistinguishable from the ego’s perception of its self [if you follow my logic there]) Stevens suggests that psychological integration cannot occur until both parent and child move beyond projections and instead embrace each other as individuals. The act of dissolving projections occurs in one of four ways.

  1. The child renounces her projection of the ideal parent and proceeds to love her care taker as an individual, and the parent holds onto their projection of the eternal child
  2. The parent renounces her eternal child projection and the child holds onto their ideal parental figure projection
  3. Both renounce their projections and love each other as individuals (our goal)
  4. Neither ever renounces their projection of the other.

I’m enthusiastic about the idea of Flying Dutchman Syndrome because it provides a framework for understanding the activation of early childhood tensions in adulthood. Like the ghost ship destined to explore the seas for the rest of eternity, Flying Dutchman Syndrome occurs when a child cannot give up their idea of the perfect parent and proceeds to search for it in other idealized figures for the rest of their life. This seems to occur when the process an individual would normally undergo to understand his parental figures as distinct from himself is thwarted. “When the actualization has been deficient, an individual finds himself, despite his conscious will in the matter, ‘sucked into’ personal involvements and situations which promise to possess characteristics adequate to constellate, or bring to birth, the un-lived archetypal elements” (Stevens 93). Interestingly, a person on a flying dutchman quest will experience his life circumstances shuffle themselves in a way that allows him to act out the early frustration of failing to get his basic requirements met. He can’t help but displace his early expectations for his parental figures onto his romantic partners, who fail to engender these requirements, or at least cannot sustain an ability to do so for long.

Considering the pressing needs of most infants, my conjecture is that more people are on a Flying Dutchman quest than we acknowledge. Maybe this is partly because though as a society we occasionally joke about looking for a mother or father figure in a romantic partner, most of us don’t realize this dilemma is so common as to warrant a name (Thank you, Anthony Stevens). When I brought up the concept of flying dutchman syndrome to a friend, he suggested that marriage might be a socially acceptable way of attempting to remedy this complex. We find a figure to idealize, form a bond with them, and move onto a stage of our lives where our emotional distance from our parents becomes ostensible (i.e. we enter into a domestic arrangement ourselves). If this quest for the ideal protective figure we never had in childhood cannot be fully remedied, but only soothed,  maybe instead of prematurely involving ourselves in long-term relationships, we can be sure that we’re attending to the integrity of the ship on which we sail. I think this means committing to an ongoing inquiry into the complexion of one’s mind, perhaps at the (occasional) expense of connection to seemingly important others.



Stevens, Anthony. Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self. London: Routledge. 1990

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