IN THE BELLY OF THE BOOMER: OCTOGENARIAN ARCHETYPES AMONG US
I try not to write about politics, even in these throwaway blog entries.
And still, sometimes I find myself dealing with the political, if only the metapolitical, and how narrative structures that appear in art also appear in life.
I won’t club you over the head with a recapitulation of Joseph Campbell’s various archetypes and their shadow selves. If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie or a Pixar movie, or played a million different roleplaying games, you’ve encountered this stuff. Suffice it to say that most works that mine Campbell’s “monomyth” usually stick to the Hero’s Journey. This follows a protagonist on their arc from a sheltered youth to a reluctant fighter for some cause. They grow into someone—who through trial by fire and aided by a wiser, older figure—reaches adulthood, having passed various tests and found their mettle not wanting.
Notice, in that rough thumbnail description, that seeming throwaway bit about the “older figure.” This is your Merlin, your Yoda, your Mister Miyagi, the sage who must train the impetuous youth for their ordeal.
The Wise Old (Wo)Man has their work cut out for them, as the young person is so eager to right various wrongs that it’s hard to teach them anything. And they need a crash course that will at least give them a fighting chance, if nothing more, when facing an incredibly powerful foe. This foe, of course, is the shadow archetype of the benevolent wizard, the sorcerer to his mage.
What about after the young hero slays the dragon/evil king, emerges from their katabatic journey into victory? Do they rest on their laurels? Live “happily ever after,” stroking the golden fleece they liberated from the hydra, or having babies with the princess they saved from the wicked sorcerer’s enchanted keep?
Presumably, they become a wise old king themselves, enjoying the fruits of their labor, the spoils of war. Their hair grows grey, their beard grows longer, and they watch their grandchildren wander around the throne room, the kingdom finally at peace, at least for a time.
If there’s one thing a story can’t stand, though, it’s stasis. Even the old must finally change.
That means it’s time for the hero to assume the role of wise old man. He must, as Yoda once counseled, lose everything he fears to lose, in order to grow. He needn’t just drop his crown and head off to the woods to fashion himself a woodland hermitage made of sticks and mud. Nor must he retreat to the mountains and begin quarrying rocks for a cairn to heap upon his own grave. It needn’t be so dramatic; he can even remain on the throne for a time, as long as he is training the next generation to assume control.
But what if he doesn’t do this? What if he refuses to recognize that his time is nigh, that some foes (like mortality) not only shouldn’t be fought, but should actually be embraced? Just as the hero can refuse the call to action—succumbing to the shadow archetype of coward—the old man can reject the final transformation that comes with death. If he refuses this ultimate transformation, he becomes the inverse of the archetype to which he has dedicated his life to instantiating up to now. He becomes his shadow archetype.
Rather than seeing the next generation as his rightful heirs, he sees them as potential usurpers to his throne. Like the ancient dowager in an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, every time he hears his grandchildren laughing from the other room, he thinks they’re plotting his demise. He may be dependent on them to prepare his meals, but he’s also convinced they’re poisoning him so they can get their inheritance faster.
As for the approach of death, the Sorcerer doesn’t see it as the natural coda to life, something which should make him grateful for the great respite. This is not the old bluesman’s “burden” to be laid down, when all hard trials are over. He has grown accustomed to life’s pleasures, ensconced in his castle where the pain can’t get to him.
He may begin to think about the catalog of his sins, and greatly fear that he may have to pay for them in the afterlife. Conversely, his faith in whatever religion he espoused throughout life may be waning, or may have always been a front, and he fears the eternal void. He is bitter, and rather than viewing death as universal, he anthropomorphizes it. He personalizes it, claims it is picking on him, shouts at shadows like Scrooge hiding his face beneath the bedspread and urging the ghosts begone.
Fear of death and pining for one’s lost youth are natural emotions. It’s when the Sorcerer begins casting about for a way to escape Death’s clutches, and begins bargaining, that things get bad for him. If he succeeds in conjuring the Devil—or Mephisto, or the Dark Side of the Force—he will sign a deal written in blood, in exchange for his soul. What does he get? More life, or even eternal life, in exchange for allegiance to this evil which promises to bend the rules for him.
He may even need a sacrifice to give in exchange for this gift; it may even be the hero themselves. Think of the way the evil Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back used Darth Vader as a kind of helpmeet to lure Luke to the bargaining table. Or the horrific (and hopefully apocryphal) story of Pope Innocent VIII drinking the blood of three young boys on his deathbed in a vain effort to gain their lifeforce.
I bring all of that up now to get back to my original point: I try to stay away from politics, even in these blog entries, but sometimes it’s hard. Especially when that politics is metapolitical, and it goes so far as to even touch on the mythopoetic.
Right now America’ s ruling class is top heavy with geezers. I’m not the first to note that we’re living under a feckless gerontocracy. It’s also obvious that while many of us lack conviction, the worst of us are on twitter, filled with passionate intensity. And that contingent usually consists of shitlib boomers like Rob Reiner and Stephen King, sanctimoniously claiming the moral high ground and demanding the rest of us fall in line.
There’s no question, that in the time of covid, their cohort was hard hit, and they certainly have as much right to their feelings on the subject as anyone else. It’s also certain that if the disease had wreaked havoc on the young and healthy, we wouldn’t have seen the nationwide hysteria and disruptions we were forced to endure. The Boomers are so used to being the fulcrum upon which the world turns—the cynosure of everyone’s eyes—that we were required to shut down society on their behalf. It’s no surprise or coincidence that Lysenko-like apparatchik Anthony Fauci was a Boomer, or that Trump, arrogantly touting his efficacious “warp speed” vaccine, also hails from this cohort.
And on the subject of Trump, their monomaniacal obsession with him has become, as comedian Kurt Metzger pointed out, a bit like Ahab’s suicidal quest against the White Whale. I’m convinced that if these Boomers were faced with incontrovertible proof that a second Trump term might’ve averted war over the Donbas, they wouldn’t care. A man who offends them viscerally but might have spared a few hundred thousand lives just isn’t worth it. They’re only concerned with harpooning him from the heart of their very own self-made hell.
If you have these obsessive Boomer types in your life, you know they don’t care. They don’t care that the coterie of advisors surrounding the Child Sniffer in Chief has brought us to the brink of nuclear war. Nor do they care that America’s borders have become so porous and dysfunctional that even the most xenophilic progressives are starting to quietly, privately, grow uneasy.
In a way, it makes sense that the Boomers would be more reticent to admit their time is over than previous generations. The Silent Generation and Greatest Generation before them generally had much harder lives. Youth culture and the concept of a teenager didn’t even exist in their day. It was a result of postwar mass affluence that touched even the working classes. The Boomers were doted over, studied as a cohort, fretted over when they flirted with juvenile delinquency. They were catered to in the culture and in the music and told for decades that they and their heroes and historical figures and their wars were the most important thing in the world.
They mocked the aged of their own day and hubristically declared that they themselves would never get old. And as they grew into institutional power, those same Boomers who regarded the Vietnam War as unethical became neocons and supported what amounted to genocide. It was a genocide, by the way, that Trump publicly decried, in South Carolina, the supposed home of the most rabid and warmongering among us.
Jim Morrison only got it half-right in Five To One. His generation has the guns and the numbers.
And it has hurt them greatly. They can’t admit to the human condition, age gracefully, admit, even into their eighties, that they are no longer teenagers. Nor can they admit that they’ve deliberately selected their replacements (in politics and everywhere else) for their fecklessness. Their fear of being usurped has ensured that anyone who comes after them is too incompetent to even administer the state or govern correctly, even if they wanted to.
I believe it’s this fear of death—a death which was much less hidden and better understood in the days of generations past—that caused their apoplexy over covid. Death is terrible, and that the aged can be killed by a flu seems unjust. But the solution to this problem is not to lock children in their homes, isolating them so that not only their immune systems, but language acquisition and facial affect reading skills suffer.
To do that is to behave as Cronus in Greek myth did, or Saturn in his Roman derivation, to swallow one’s child in the attempt to hold back time.
Tying this back into Campbell’s taxonomy, it’s important to note that not everyone hits every one of the arcs, from the hero to the mage. It isn’t just a matter of ageing through the various stages of herohood. One must make the right choices, take rather than refuse the calls to action, lest they become in some way stunted.
I could speculate on what makes our rulers so immature, what rites of passage they shirked in order to become such mockeries of sages in their declining years. Maybe it was the draft deferments—the five Biden got for asthma, the who-knows-how-many Trump got for bone spurs.
But I’m done speculating for now, and done with this unsavory subject. Suffice it to say that even calling these gormless old men evil is to impute too much depth and nuance to them. Biden is not Emperor Palpatine, standing before the threshold to eternal darkness, tempting the Hero to make the same Mephistophelian bargain he made. He can barely stand up, or go two minutes without flirting with the nearest twelve year-old girl in the audience unfortunate enough to endure his withered gaze. And his son’s an influence-peddling crackhead whose penchant for recording every moment of his perfidy means not even the most nimble twitter-fingered Boomer can hide the truth.
Which is that, when they look at Trump they see themselves, and that is why they hate him so.