Thursday, June 4, 2009


Two seemingly unrelated media items drew my attention over the last couple of weeks and made me think about an aspect of the structure of the personality as outlined by C.G.Jung. This aspect is one of the Archetypes called the Persona.

“The word persona originally denoted a mask worn by an actor which enabled him to portray a specific role in a play. In Jungian psychology, the persona archetype serves a similar purpose. It enables one to portray a character that is not necessarily his own. The persona is the mask or fa├žade one exhibits publicly, with the intention of presenting a favourable impression so that society will accept him. It might also be called the ‘conformity’ archetype.”

Most of us are involved with one of our many personas when we are working. This is where we wear our persona of the teacher, the doctor, the carpenter, the nurse etc, etc. The persona is the basis of community life and the numerous roles we play are necessary for survival as it allows us to get along with other people and play predictable roles.

A person may have more than one mask. At home we may wear a different mask than we wear at work. We may put on a third mask when we go out to play golf or socialize with friends. Collectively however all of our masks constitute our persona – we merely conform in different ways in different situations.

The two unrelated media items reminded me that sometimes when playing the roles we play and wearing the masks we sometimes wear; emotions can break through that are at variance with the current persona and say something very honest about what we are feeling and who perhaps we really are.

The first item was a photograph in the New Zealand Herald newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The photograph (above) shows an Afghani mother with her child at the local hospital after 90 Afghan children were rushed to hospital, many who were unconscious and vomiting after a gas attack on their school.
“It was the third such attack against a girls school in Afghanistan in as many weeks, raising fears that the Taliban are resorting to increasingly vicious methods to terrorize young women out of education.”
When I looked at this photograph something drew my attention. If you look closely at the mothers light blue burqa on her right hand side next to the burqas viewing screen, you can see that the cloth is wet with tears. Despite the cultural imperative to wear this burqa which creates a collective persona of anonymity, the mothers true individual feelings and concerns seep through. You cannot but feel sympathy for her and for all Afghani girls struggling to obtain an education.

The second media item featured the ex Rugby All Black and now New Zealand television personality Marc Ellis. Ellis has been and is involved with a number of television shows. The persona he projects in all these shows is the persona of - the lad, the larrikin, the good Kiwi blokey bloke and the clown. The language that drives this persona is one of banter, jokes, putdowns, competitive challenges and good old fashioned blarney. All of this is well mixed with a mischievous macho ethos. Often this persona verges on a caricature of itself.

A couple of weeks ago in a new show called “How The Other Half Live” Ellis goes pig hunting with a tough group of pig hunters. Helter skelter through the bush they go with guns and a pack of pig dogs. Marc Ellis seems to be in his element, full of bravura and involvement right up to point of the kill. At the point where the dogs have the large boar surrounded and the lads go in to ‘stick’ the pig, (‘stick’ being a euphemism for slitting the pigs’ throat) Ellis turns away – “I don’t think I can watch it being killed” he says laughing in a slightly nervous manner. Later after having bodily carried the pig out of the bush, he sits astride his horse with the dead pig lying across the front of the saddle.
“Well, this has been fun” he says, “But I actually like animals a lot and I don’t like seeing them get hurt.” He says this with a slight quiver of the lips and a vulnerable hesitancy in his face - for a few seconds the carefree blokey mask disappears. He is clearly upset and reveals himself as being, at heart, an animal lover. As he revealed this unexpected side to himself I had a vision of a younger Ellis of say 10 or 12 years old holding and stroking his pet rabbit, cat or guinea pig – It was an endearing moment and this revelation was for me the best audience connection in the whole blokey caricature of a TV show. Something at variance with his persona had broken through and revealed an aspect of his true character from within the caricature .

Sometimes from the depths of our being the way we really feel seeps out - like tears through a burqa or like the quiver on the lips of a reluctant pig hunter.

Sometimes what we reveal about ourselves is as wild and yahooingly free as a bungy jump from the Skippers Canyon bridge in Central Otago - sometimes its like blood seeping through the thick bandage of a deep wound – but when it happens, we reveal something of our true selves, our humanity beneath the Persona - and that knowledge is like a knife.



Delwyn said...

Hi Alden
you have brought up some interesting points here.
I have a slightly different understanding of the personna and the masks we wear and also the roles we operate through and facades we operate under.

It's a bit too complex to go into here, suffice to say that we all wear masks as an interface with the world but I think that through them we reveal our inner selves to some degree.

I think the face/mask/role can interact with the world with integrity and honesty, not necessarily beguile...

Do you mean caricature - a gross representation of a person or their characteristics???

Alden said...

Delwyn - First, thankyou for correcting my misspelling of caricature. I knew it was wrong but couldn't find it in the dictionary, which is the irony of using a dictionary to find the spelling of a word when you can't spell the word in the first place -I googled 'caricature' and found it as I had misspelt it, so I used it still knowing it looked incorrect -Yes, not a good look for a schoolteacher.

I agree that the sense and complexity of the nature of the Persona is a big subject to talk about and I am only an Jungian enthusiast not an expert.

The point I am trying to make is that there are some Personas that by their very nature mean that some aspects of our true self are repressed in order for the particular Persona to be realised -For example the suppression of the natural sexual instincts in the Persona of a celibate Catholic priest.

I think that you are correct in saying that the Personas interact with integrity and honesty, but I think that some aspects of the self have to be repressed so that a particular persona can be realised.

VenDr said...

There is a sense that Marc Ellis' love of animals and the mother's tears are also socially and genetically conditioned responses, and are no more part of their true selves and deepest level of consciousness than are their personas.

We can't operate in the world except by way of a persona. In one of the wonderful Hitchhiker's Guide books, can't remember which one, Douglas Adams has as a character a fully realised human being: one who has dispensed with a persona and in fact with all of what the mystics might call the false self. The character is reduced, socially, to the level of an imbecile: so completely in the present he never remembers or anticipates anything.So open and vulnerable he needs the constant protection of others who must make all his decisions for him. I don't think it's possible or desirable to get rid of the persona; what's key is consciousness: being aware of what we are and how we operate. When a person is unconscious they are deluded into thinking that their persona - and in fact all the other bits and pieces which make up the complex entity we call a personality -is actually themselves, and further (even more preposterous) that it is all under their control.The aim of inner growth is not to get rid of this stuff, but to understand it, and thus be free of it. A Zen master was asked "what were you like before you were enlightened?" He answered, "I drew water and I chopped wood." And what are you like now, after enlightenment? He answered, "I draw water, I chop wood."

Janice said...

Alden, you are, as always, so interesting - is that your blog persona? I wemt to my new doctor here in Comox, where I have successfully moved (I hate moving, but I love this new place; pictures to follow, soon enough). This doctor is a young Irishman, and in the course of our conversation I said that I hoped he had a sense of humour, because he would need one if he was dealing with me; unfortunately, his doctor persona would not allow his to admit to having one, he takes himself very seriously in that role, which I suppose is a good thing, albeit not very enjoyable. I'm sure in his off hours he can laugh it up with the best of us, but not while he is being a doctor. You are right, every once in a while the persona slips, and our humanity shines through. I have found that one needs certain persona in certain conditions, and I personally have problems with that, being a "what you see is what you get" kind of person. I could never have been an actor, because I can't seem to fake anything without a great deal of preparation. So what about those of us who have trouble being exactly what we are at all times?
I think perhaps the whole persona thing is a concept that is not available in some cultures, and is vital to one's success in others. I'm thinking of what I know of First Nations culture, and the students that I counselled while they were trying to be successful in school. Many of them found it very difficult to invent themselves as students in the post-secondary setting, much to their detriment because the school culture can be quite unrelenting when it comes to forms and norms.
Writing in standard English was one of the concepts they found to be very difficult; I remember one man in particular who, after he had written a particularly inflammatory opinion about European contact times, added (joke, ha ha) after it). He couldn't understand why that was not ok in an academic paper, because he though that his feelings were relevant to what he was writing. The prof's academic persona would never have accepted what he had to say in the first person, of course, and it was sad to have to tell him that his opinion would only have made his prof quite angry if he left it in. Coming from a culture where consensus of opinion was of the utmost importance, and where his own opinion would have been sought out, he couldn't wrap his head around the idea that academic writing is all about proving your idea by seeking out the opinions of a lot lof people one does not know in books. I think I'm not making myself very clear here, but what I'm trying to say is that some of our personas are so set by our culture that we have a difficult time figuring out what is behind the mask of others, to our detriment. I read Paul Theroux's 'Riding the Iron Rooster' about his travels in China, and his discovery that the Chinese used certain forms of laughter to express themselves was very interesting. He said that one form of laugh meant, roughly, that one better not argue, but just do as one was told (this was communist China, by the way), and that another laugh meant that what you just said made the listener very nervous or uncomfortable, and you'd better not say it again. It was clever of him to pick that up, as we often can't interpret these things through our own cultural lens. Finally, I do think that there are two things that break through our masks and reveal us to be who we are, and those are what makes us cry, and what makes us laugh.

Alden said...

Kelvin, Yes we are told by the mystics and the philosophers that who we are is a little more complicated than simply thinking and being ("I think therefore I am").
The assertion of others (most Eastern Religions) is that the locus of who we are, the "I" is independent of thinking - and if I recall correctly it was Jean Paul Sartre who made this point in contradiction of Descartes.
But of course if we search for an experience of what this "I" is, we are still unable to prove that the essence of the experience is of a universal quality, indeed that it is in any way the same as any ones else’s -"Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

Alden said...

Janice, I think a doctor should have a sense of humour but NOT a brain surgeon - belly laughs by someone weilding a sharp scalpel is a recipe for an unwanted frontal lobotomy - All brain surgeons should be highly intelligent, capable but essentially dour!

I understand what you are saying about, "So what about those of us who have trouble being exactly what we are at all times?" - I guess putting on a particular Persona or role refers to behavioural actions linked to that role, not to a complete change of personality. A particular Persona (for example a funeral director) would mean a certain restraint on ones belly laughs, and the banter of jokes with ones work colleagues during working hours - but the days work could certainly be a source of great humour at the pub after working hours. There would be no change of ones fundemental personality during working hours, only a sensible suppression of some aspects of it. - the Persona of the funeral director allows him to be useful to society and himself by defining an acceptable role and stops funeral directors leaning over to the bereaved and asking if they have heard the one about the 200kg corpse and the termite eaten coffin bottom.

I think (although I am not an expert here) that the Persona ( being an archetype) operates in all cultures. In our collective past, there would be tribal roles to play such as priest, shaman, poet, orator, warrior, etc etc.

In the last part of your comment you are I think making the point of cross cultural misunderstandings that can arise, and yes, I think that this can happen especially if you do not have an in depth understanding of a particular Persona within a particular culture - that particular Personas role, nuance, protocols,boundaries etc etc.

Janice said...

Alden, I don't think that "a slight quiver of the lips and a vulnerable hesitancy in his face" connects us to that man's true humanity, seems to me that he is a very good actor, because if he was truly, truly an animal lover, he would never have been able to go on a pig hunt. That action is akin to a child molester swearing that he loves children! Call me a cynic, but I think that Persona interferes with our very ability to be who we are, and gives us something to hide behind when reality threatens to call us out, and this isn't always, or often, in a good way.