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

he who remains silent vigorously consents.

A performative contradiction refers to a statement whose presupposition contradicts its content. Sentences such as “I am dead” or “I am illiterate” or “I don’t speak English.” I can’t be dead, unable to read or write or speak English and proceed to make these claims. Even though the performative contradiction is a rhetorical principle, I am interested in its application to the realm of action. What if our actions can’t be distinguished from the cohesive state of our psyches, both its conscious and unconscious contents? Instead, our actions are inevitable extensions of the content of our psyches, which may or may not be available for our conscious viewing.

To illustrate what I mean—I usually think of myself as a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I am fearful of its potential health risks (though there seems to be conflicting evidence in this regard, so this explanation has lost some of its juice). BUT I am also fascinated by and have a tremendous amount of respect for consciousness, and I don’t think chickens and cows are any less conscious simply because they do not participate in language speaking or driving on freeways. (and here you might say something like yeah but they’re clearly not operating at the same level of sophistication as human beings. But if we’re respecting them only on the principle that they may be conscious, consciousness proceeds all the contents that inhabit it, including intelligence and competence, so this type of respect seems to arise prior to the fruits of a conscious agent).  And yet, I still eat mayonnaise occasionally, and sometimes I’ll eat cookies with eggs, and if I’m feeling especially unruly sometimes I’ll drink coffee with cream. You might think, well maybe these things are okay because animals were not killed in the process of creating these products. But if the natural course of their lives was re-negotiated by the human agenda this seems to be a disruption to their autonomy, and it seems like autonomy and consciousness are at least close to being indistinguishable.

Granted, it is possible that I am more susceptible to breaking my own principles than the average person, (only moderate in conscientiousness [58th percentile]) but my sense is that this sort of performative contradiction is more endemic to human experience than we collectively acknowledge. If there is a dis-junction between my stated values and my actions, then what if it’s not so much that my actions are out of alignment with my values, but that I don’t have a fully articulated set of values? Perhaps there are values that are operating beyond my conscious understanding that are manifesting in my behavior. For example– the person who smokes cigarettes and claims to value her life and her family. There is a way in which it is possible to smoke and still experience positive emotion that would contribute to a person’s will to live. But if the cigarette smoker knows that by breathing in these chemicals it is possible that one day she might be told she has a tumor pressing on her lung that has spread to her brain, can she (FULLY) acknowledge this possibility and value her life simultaneously? As Jordan Peterson articulated in his  8th rule: “Tell the truth; or at least, don’t lie” we only think we understand how a system works (in this case, the body) when it cooperates with us. Then the question becomes–what if my actions are always a perfect representation of my values, and it’s just that as an ego I am not, at any moment, fully aware of the constellation of desires and attributes and short comings which make up my psycho-dynamics. In short, there may be details of the unconscious that are unavailable for my speculation that result in my acting in specific ways. The implication here seems to be that when I conceptualize about myself, I only have access to a sliver of the relevant information. Of course, this was the news of psychoanalysis that we all embraced in the early 20th century, but the ego has a significant hold over daily thoughts and emotions, so it seems worth re-affirming: I as conscious witness am an amalgam of competing sub selves with their own set of desires and attitudes and emotional valences. It is possible that when I am stating my values, I am speaking for a single sub-self with desires that are split off from the version of me who sighs in resignation prior to taking a bite of a portobello mushroom sandwich with mayonnaise and cheese.

Most people do not acknowledge the parts of themselves that conflict with what mainstream culture deems acceptable. Darker thoughts that we might loosely associate with the shadow might occur because our status as members of the animal kingdom dictates that a certain level of aggression and resentment are necessary to getting what we want. What’s interesting about the kind of performative contradiction i’m describing is that it demonstrates not so much that the action is unrepresentative of the inner life but that our actions can emphasize some avenue of the psyche that has not yet been explored or acknowledged. Whenever people like me sit and articulate our values we’re only speaking from one of many autonomous selves. As Steven Pinker stated in The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, “The self is a spin doctor not commander in chief.” The self can articulate a list of justifications for doing whatever suits its current purposes because it seems to be something like fleeting software that comes about depending on a person’s physiological climate. When I’m distracted and under nourished, a cold water and some indulgent food seems like the most obvious choice in the world, but when I’m feeling productive and caffeinated all I want to do is explore the world of articulating principles and figuring out what it would mean to stand beside them.

The things that get us in the most trouble—the drive for food and sex—arise from our instincts, and our interest in articulating values or creating blogs came at a much later time in the evolution of the species. Are the systems that evolved earlier are inherently more powerfully motivating than the ones that evolved later? If so, the performative contradiction I’ve been describing may be a fundamental human problem because we have these complex conceptualization skills but we’re still held hostage by the lower drives we share with other members of the animal kingdom. Maybe the performative contradiction is a problem that plagues most humans because it cuts to the core of our existential issues. We can conceptualize about our own death, but we’re still ultimately powerless in the state of our body’s eventual decay. In other words, we can learn as much as we can with our minds, but the mind is dependent upon the condition of the body. Therefore, in these smaller moments of choosing between sticking w principles and playing around w what it is like to be a body, the probability that we’re going to make the less enlightened decision is high.