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Mythic Passages - The Magazine of Imagination - Copyright 2008

Parzival, Puer Aeternus, and Healing the Waste Land:
Integrating Conscious and Unconscious

© 2008 by Joseph Good

Parzival by Feirefiz

In a lecture given at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Dr. Glen Slater, a Jungian scholar and professor, diagrammed the formation of the ego within the theoretical context of Jungian psychology. He suggests that the individual ego is formed as a product of the collision of influences of culture with impulses of instinct. Dr. Slater, following C.G. Jung, says the human child is born as a mass of instinctual impulses, consciousness without ego. As the child grows, the demands and requirements of the world, the cultured world, assert themselves, often in direct conflict with the energies of that primal instinctive base. The tension between the instincts of the unconscious and the behavioral expectations of culture create a complex around the Self archetype which becomes the ego. The consequences of this inevitable conflict are both positive and negative, both to the developing human being and the wider community. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival we can observe, through the metaphor of the Grail Quest, the implications for the individual and the world when the conscious, rational, cultured mind overrides the instinctive bases of human existence.

When we first meet Parzival he is the embodiment of the pre-ego state of psyche-nature described by Slater. Parzival lives with his mother in distant woods, unencumbered by civilized culture. "He washed himself in the meadow on the river-bank each morning. He had no care in the world save the singing of the birds overhead" (Parzival 71). Parzival, thanks to the loving protection of his mother, is in this state of a-culturality, free to behave and move as his own nature manifests. As Edward Edinger states in Ego and Archetype, "In the paradise age, the people are still in union with the gods. This represents the state of the ego that is as yet unborn, not yet separated from the womb of the unconscious and hence still partaking of the divine fullness and totality" (8). Wolfram does not keep Parzival in this state for long.

Parzival DepartsEarly in the story Parzival leaves his mother to pursue his newfound desire to become a knight. The model of pre-cultural consciousness (and perhaps bliss) now begins his encounter with the world beyond the idyllic one dominated by his mother and nature.

When this pre-egoic consciousness begins to interact with the culture that contextualizes it, the formation of the ego begins. Typically, this is the slow process of an infant coming to understand acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and forthwith orient its consciousness to those demands. As the ego forms in this way, there also manifests the conflict between the demands of the culture with the desire-impulses of the growing infant. Wolfram gives us this process in a condensed version with a much older subject in Parzival. It is in Parzival's first meeting with Gurnemanz that we see in dialog form the interaction of non-ego consciousness and culture; "Keep to my advice, it will save you from wrong-doing" (Parzival 95). Gurnemanz delivers the following well-intentioned advice;

never lose your sense of shame [...] be rich and poor with discretion [...] give moderation its due [...] do not ask many questions [...] temper daring with mercy [...] wash your face and hands [after battle] [...] man and woman are all one. (95—96)

Gurnemanz is serving as the culture-transmitting agent which will supplant, in part, the raw, unconscious impulses of Parzival; "Now have done with unformed ways!" (96). Eventually, a critical portion of this advice will conspire with Parzival's desire and directly result in his failure at the Grail Castle.

Parsival by Herman HendrichHaving received Gurnemanz's advice and taken it seriously, commensurate with his own desire to become a knight, Parzival arrives at the Grail Castle. The dazzling procession of the Grail gave context to the moment at which Parzival had his first opportunity to heal the grail king. The impulse was there. He thought about asking The Question — and hesitated. When his conscious thought about asking the question superseded his impulse to ask it, he failed. He simply recalled the advice Gurnemanz had given him; "Gurnemanz advised me with perfect sincerity against asking many questions" (127). With this recollection, accompanied by the awkward pause of anticipation among the grail host, punctuated by the realization that the question was not forthcoming. Parzival was completely ignorant of the profound implications of this moment, as most of us are each time we're presented with the opportunity to ask. And, as with so many calamities, the effects are far enough removed from their causes that no connection can be drawn between them, no relationship noticed or deduced. So, here too, Parzival leaves the Grail Castle absolutely unaware that he has become the instrument of ill fate.

In the moment of the suppression of the unconscious, the psyche becomes divided, the unconscious no longer informs conscious thought or action, and the unconscious is disassociated from the conscious. Joseph Campbell describes the modern state of the human psyche this way and it is also relevant to the condition which Parzival represents; "The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two" (Hero 388). And Carl Jung suggests;

Normally the unconscious collaborates with the conscious without friction [...] but when an individual [...] deviates too far from their instinctual foundations, they then experience the full impact of unconscious forces. (Essential Jung 219)

One such unconscious force comes in the form of Sigune who lambastes Parzival for his failure the instant she discovers who he is and what he's done. Another aggressive criticism of his failure comes from the sorceress Cundrie, who redresses him in the company of Arthur's court and shames him openly and deeply. The woe and despair of Parzival at the realization of his failure drive him into the wilderness for five years. The wilderness is that zone of the psyche which is primarily unconscious. It is untamed and generally unknown, lurking with darkness and danger. This is the time of the reunification of the psyche. The unconscious has asserted its force and the conscious mind will now reorient itself to operate in collaboration with its unconscious counterpart.

The return of the unconscious aspect of the psyche is evident in Parzival's seemingly naïve commitment to return to the Grail Castle in order to "right his wrong." We are told by Sigune, however, immediately after Parzival's initial failure, "[w]hen someone is meant to see the castle it must come to pass unwittingly" (132). This is to say; when one comes upon the Grail Castle it will not be the result of a conscious search for it. Therefore, one cannot intend to find the castle. Yet, this is exactly what Parzival does; he ignores the reported futility of an intentional quest for the Grail Castle, an act which requires a juvenile rebelliousness. This is the reassertion of the puer aspect, the pre-egoic instinctive drive, of Parzival that was preempted at the meeting with Gurnemanz and now reintegrates itself with Parzival's conscious processes.

Within the context of the structures and dynamics of the psyche as outlined by C.G. Jung, this event can be seen as a result of the unification of the once disparate elements of the psyche. In this way we can describe the nature of the grail quest today; to reunite the divided aspects of the psyche, the quest for wholeness. In the case of Parzival it involves the rediscovery and integration of the primary, unconscious aspect which is characterized by the puer, infancy or youth.

Here, puer aeternus refers to that childlike, pre-cultural aspect of the psyche, the deep centers of instinct, not the pathological reluctance to surrender youth, as described by Marie-Louise Von Franz in The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Rather, as the state of connection with the instinctual base of human life. The "child within" becomes a critical agent for the health of human kind, the absolute necessary element of healthy and whole human existence. As necessary as the development of the ego is for a healthy and functioning human adult, it can also become the adult's, and indeed the world's, most obstinate obstacle.

Parzival and the Red KnightEchoes of the recognition of the pre-ego state, of infancy or youth, containing the essential connection to vitality; the suggestion that ego-consciousness and intentionality are errant ways of thinking of solutions to problems created by those very modes of thought, are found in the wider ranging philosophies of the far East to which T.S. Eliot gives a significant gesture at the end of The Waste Land. Eliot's idea of revivifying the waste-land comes directly from the Hindu tradition, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when he suggests the "da" solution; damyata, datta, and dayadhvam — self-control, giving, and compassion. Also, from the tradition of Confucius, from The Book of Mencius, "[t]he great man is he who does not lose his child's-heart" (IV 2.12). Another contemporary, Joseph Campbell, remarks directly of Parzival, "[h]e is to be a sort of puer aeternus, virtuous and fearless, whose nature itself will be the key to the undoing of a spell that no intentional program of courage or virtue could dissolve" (Creative Myth 136).

The modern emphasis on the conscious aspect of the psyche, the ego specifically, can be observed in our methods of problem solving. Science is our method, logic the guide. Technology, as the instrument of science, is the preferred tool for correcting problems of human existence. For example, in order to eradicate disease we create medicines, in order to make more food than the land will yield in its natural course we manufacture synthetic foods, in order to live in places the human being is not capable of living without assistance we build enclosures within which we regulate the climate. All of these "solutions," however, present new problems. Cures for diseases create resistant strains of bacteria, synthetic foods necessarily lack qualities which can sustain healthy living so sickness escalates; our environmental controls consume massive amounts of energy which generates pollutants enough to threaten the ecological balance of the entire planet. What is our solution to these new problems? We apply more technology, more of the original cause. The cycle seems to have a momentum of its own at this point in history. We, by way of our devotion to the rational, scientific consciousness and mode of thought create a literal wasteland for ourselves which serves as a reflection of the inner wasteland, the more dangerous to be sure. Again, our causes lack the awareness of their effects and so we continue smoking, oblivious of the connection to our cancer. When the conscious mind operates in rejection of the unconscious the Wasteland is the result.

This "Parzivalian puer" is the one of the middle ground. It is the puer integrated with the senex to become a being who wields the wisdom of both worlds. The creative, unmanaged, wanton world of the unconscious integrated with the structured, ordered, calculated world of the conscious without the disastrous emphasis of one over the other.

Parzival is the model for our time as much as he was for Wolfram's time, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. We, too, have failed in our first (nth?) visit to the grail castle and the king's wound remains open and festering. A return to our own instinctive base, the impulses of the child of possibility, is the domain and source of our salvation. Polarities no longer serve, if they ever did, and our task is to surrender our ego-conscious emphasis in order to survive. We face no greater threat to ourselves than ourselves. However the solution may look in the end, it will not be a premeditated, structured, carefully implemented and thoroughly calculated process. It will be spontaneous, unforeseen in its particulars, and broad in its inspiration.

Even the impulse to make this point more clearly, an impulse that is, itself, a product of the western, rational-scientific psyche, to render a comprehensible, cogent, and concise, methodical solution is precisely what is to be recognized as untenable. Or, at least, a solution that is all of those things is destined to fail because the solution cannot be solely of the ego-conscious mind. It won't be one that can be predicted or ordered. It is of the same nature as myth. Indeed, it may be a new myth that is required to heal the modern waste land and achieve the collaboration of the two disparate aspects of the psyche. As Joseph Campbell states in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, "[...] the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche [...]" (4). The "solution" to the problem of the wasteland will resemble the nature of those mythological symbols in their unpredictability and spontaneity. Beyond that we can only imagine the possibilities.

Works Cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP,1973.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Edinger, Edward P. Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.
  • Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2001.
  • Jung, Carl Gustav. The Essential Jung. Ed. Anthony Storr. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.
  • Legge, James, trans. The Works of Mencius. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895.
  • Slater, Glen. "The Ego-Self Relationship". Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, California. 28 June. 2006.
  • Von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Trans. A.T. Hatto. Middlesex, England: Penguin Classics, 1980.

Joseph Good is a member of the Mythic Imagination Institute's Leadership Team and he currently attends Pacifica Graduate Institute.

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