Brownie Bites:Working with the Persona

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Image retrieved from googleimages.com

Fundamentally the Persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a [person] should appear to be. (Jung as qtd in Frager and Fadiman, 76)

The Persona, according to Jung, is the outermost expression of our consciousness and personality. Persona means “mask”. It is what and how we present ourselves to the world: our “role”, what we wear, what do for work. A gross generalization is that its content is a mix of how we see ourselves, what is expected of us based on our culture and family, and also, of whatever complex is manifesting from the unconscious parts of our psyche. It is also the archetype in which we identify our “gender”.  When functioning, it  is the spokesperson for our Ego, and if it is well developed it expresses the manifestations of the Self and unifies itself with the Animus/Anima.

The Persona is best “seen”  in the expression of our personal possessions. In particular, it manifests itself through clothing and adornment, or even in the kind of cars we drive, or houses we live in.  We all know of people who seem to “express themselves” through their possessions, and we in turn tend to “stereotype” people based on their outward adornment or type of material possessions. But, this idea of Persona is also expressed through traditional societal cultures and ideologies: think of the “dress” of the Amish, or the Sikh, etc. Each individual is expressing a collective Persona: that is, how they not only see themselves, but what is expected of them in their culture. There is not much individuation going on.

Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, is a fabulous example of how a dysfunctional persona is expressed  as a universal motif in fairy tales.

Emperors CLothes

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Synopsis: A vain, self-centered Emperor is obsessed and preoccupied with his wardrobe, over ruling his country.

“He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King’s in council,” here they always said. “The Emperor’s in his dressing room.”

One day, a couple of “swindlers” arrived in the city. They decided to teach the Emperor a lesson and make a profit in the business.

“They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

As the Emperor was- as Emperors often are- paranoid, he decided to have these weavers make him a special outfit so that he would be able to test the faithfulness of his court attendants and advisors. The Swindlers pocketed all of the fine materials and gold they requested, and pretended to weave this beautiful and special cloth. Various wise officials of the court visited the weavers – at the behest of the Emperor-  to see how things were going. The swindlers pretended to weave, yet the officials could see nothing on the looms. They then were fearful that they must be “unusually stupid” and so oohed and ahhed at the exquisite beauty of the cloth. But, the Emperor was nervous, after all, the whole country knew of this commission, and he would soon publicly display the fine outfit. He decided to go and see the work of the weavers himself. To his great discomfort, he could not see the fabric, but as his court officials exclaimed over the exquisite beauty, he too, decided to pretend.

“What’s this?” thought the Emperor. “I can’t see anything. This is terrible! Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! – “Oh! It’s very pretty,” he said. “It has my highest approval.” And he nodded approbation at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.

And so all of his court continued to also nod, and murmur approval, though they too, could see nothing on the looms. The day came for the Emperor to be dressed in his fine new clothes. The weavers assisted him in dressing exclaiming of how “light” the clothes were and therefore he would feel as if he were wearing nothing at all.

They said, “These are the trousers, here’s the coat, and this is the mantle,” naming each garment. “All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.”

The Emperor was dressed and the retinue picked up the non-existent train of his cape and out into the streets they went: the entire populace very confused, but clapping and a murmuring in obsequious wonder until…

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said. “Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

And the Emperor heard, and shivered with shame, but continued on just the same holding his nose even higher. And so did his retinue.

Source: synopsis transcribed from a translated version retrieved from The Hans Christian Anderson Center. SDU.  http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html

Jung claims that when we dream about a character or person in specific clothing, or one who is naked, or has no skin, this is a symbol of our Persona. In fairy tales, the Personae archetypes are fairly obvious: prince, princess, tailor, miller, etc…the dramatis personae  is the “cast” of characters. And, we assume they will “act” like their persona. This is important in these types of stories because each Persona is a function of the whole story and often portrays a deeper crisis or problem within  the psyche and in a culture.

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Image by News Feed. Retrieved from googleimages.com

The child, who “sees” the Emperor for what he is is a function of the Self: it is pure innocence and truth. The tragedy of this fairy tale is that the Emperor also recognizes his “false self” but chooses to continue on anyway. He ( and his retinue) is possessed by his Persona. This story also expresses the universal, or collective pathology within society. We can certainly compare this story to our current Presidential Personae.

On writing: When we create characters, it is natural to start with the Persona: what do they look like, what kind of job or occupation do they have, what do they wear. Often, this is all the character development that occurs, and the result is the dreaded “stereotypical”  character.  You can work with any kind of character without fear of creating a stereotype as long as you work the manifestation of their Persona from the inside out. Why do they have that certain kind of occupation, or wear that kind of clothing, or look, act and speak that certain kind of way? What is their hidden motive?  Are they even aware of it? How does their Persona get them into trouble? How does it cause conflict in their lives, or with other people? Why did they form it in the first place?

 

disney's evil queen

Disney’s “Evil Queen”  from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Image retrieved from googleimages.com

Exercise: choose a well-known character from mainstream pop culture, fiction, or film, one you really feel is annoyingly stereotypical. Write down their Persona attributes: looks, occupation, clothing, possessions, mannerisms. Now, invent an internal scenario of what is really going on beneath the surface. Use your own personal experiences if it helps, and infuse this character with as much inner substance as you can, no matter how weird. Now, put this newly developed character back into a typical scene or scenario from “their world” and write it out. Make sure everything they do comes from this inner substance rather than their outward Persona.

Thanks for reading.

Source: Frager, Robert and Fadiman, James. Personality and Personal Growth, 6th Ed. New Jersey: Pearson. 2005.

 

 

 

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