From Chapter 1
THE EXPERIENCE OF BOYS
THE ORIGINS OF IMPOSTURE
That the cultural standard for male development--the good boy, the good man--rests on the assumption of a spirit-crippling imposture seems at once an upsetting and extravagant claim. But it may be nonetheless true.
Boys are not born into imposture. It is not “natural.” There is no genetic predisposition. Nor, as might be imagined, are infant boys molded to this imposture by their earliest socialization. Little boys, when they acquire sufficient language and experience to become conceptually aware of their identity as males and of their place in family and community, begin to internalize strong impressions of such ideals as Good Boy, Good Man, and Hero. These earliest impressions are not confining or forbidding. The initial figures of Good Man, Good Father, Good Son, and Hero are sheer story, sheer possibility. As such they take their compelling places in developing consciousness alongside such figures as Wise Man, King, Wizard, Trickster, Villain, and Fool. The civic and moral (and thus culturally preferred) figures may in some instances be heavily endorsed by nurturers and early teachers, but educational emphasis does less to shape the youth’s personal identity than the inherent appeal of the archetypal figures themselves.
From his earliest capacity to enter into stories until the onset of pubescence, a boy ranges with a thrilling spiritual liberty through a world in which a lively array of male types play out their adventures and vie for his allegiance. This stage of life is the special preserve of what Jungian thought has called puer spirit.
[The puer spirit] wanders to spend or to capture, and to ignite,
to try its luck, but not with the aim of going home. . . . The puer
understands little of what is gained by repetition and by consistency,
that is by work. . . . These teachings but cripple its winged heels. . . .
It is anyway not meant to walk, but to fly.
. . . The puer attitude displays an esthetic point of view: the
world as beautiful images or vast scenario. Life becomes literature,
an adventure. The puer in any complex gives it its drive and drivenness,
makes it move too fast and want too much, go too far.1
Every boy is held for a time in the thrall of his puer spirit, and a few manage to dwell in this thralldom for the length of their lives. If one were to bracket this period in years, a good estimate for boys in the West would be between ages three and ten, between preschool and the onset of junior high. In those years boys experience their first consciously autonomous explorations. They find opportunities for undirected play. They experience the constellations of their first friendships, first societies. They discover whom they fear and hate. They feel reverence for the heroes of their stories but also reverence--not merely dread--for villains and magi and tricksters. In their games and improvisations they are quite likely to prefer Indians to Cowboys, the Bad Guys to the Good Guys. Whatever the choices and inspirations, it is hard for a loving adult to be overly concerned about such play. The boys are so happily transported, energized, so fully themselves. If not conventionally “good,” they are observably right. This time of vivid stories being integrated into actual play is a time of great feeling. It is religious in the sense of being charged with reverence and wonder. It is a period characterized by intense longing, including longing for that which seems to be practically impossible, for worlds and galaxies not yet seen and for wondrous worlds and beings forever lost. Outer space and the era of dinosaurs beckon with equal force. These are what Selma Fraiberg calls “magic years” because the membrane between story and waking reality is permeable. The archetypal figures move easily between both worlds. Imaginary friends speak, clasp your hand, run out ahead of you down the path.
Although the archetypal figures can be domineering and very forceful, the boy beholding them is wonderfully free of having to impose himself in this way. Each boy is for a spell of his time completely unentitled, neither (except for the purposes of a specific game or adventure) ruler nor subject, leader nor follower, hero nor villain. In this he is a natural democrat, neither above nor beneath the fray. In this era of the story and puer play, even boys whose personal circumstances are miserably deprived are capable of great optimism and hope.
Boys held fast in their puer spirit are by no means detached, unreal, or ineffective in their practical situations. Because the puer spirit enlivens, such boys bring great energy and presence to their families and to their schools. Moreover, as Erik Erikson maintains, they are capable of great industry as they progress through household, neighborhood, school, and community. Looked at closely, this industry is not practical foresight or good sense; it too is a charged story: the romance of creation and material transformation. In prepubescence boys learn, deeply and forever, the enabling skills of learning: reading, writing, arithmetic. They learn skills they will not forget: riding a bicycle, hitting a ball, swimming, hammering nails. Puer-spirited boys are tenacious builders of models, keepers of pets, collectors of coins, cards, stamps, bottles. They are charmed by badges, uniforms, caps. They are glad to be assumed into dens and troops, teams and clubs. They lose themselves recklessly in the work of tunneling under earth or sand. They are great builders of aeries and forts. Fire, too, has its heady Promethean appeal--and it can be trouble. These boys want to ride it, make it go, make it fly, make it go faster. They want to launch it, detonate it, shoot it into the flanks of prey.