As I’ve explained many times, I don’t watch TV, so the Charlie Sheen brouhaha didn’t enter my awareness until a few days ago when I came across the above video. Then I Googled and found a zillion articles and video clips in which every mental health professional on the planet, like Dr. Drew, proffers an explanation of Sheen’s behavior.
Whatever the etiology of his behavior — drugs, bipolar disorder, hypomania — Sheen embodies in Jungian terms the “puer aeternus” (“the eternal youth”). It’s not really my intention here to join the diagnostic frenzy, but here’s an excerpt from Dr. Peter Milhado’s description of the puer complex:
The Puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. This can be externalized in a highly symbolic fashion in fascination with flying or climbing mountains. Many Puers hang out on ski slopes and racetracks. Many are drawn to drinking, gambling, pornography and drugs to get that rush.
The classic mythic example of the puer is Icarus, flying too high and crashing to his death when the sun’s heat melted the wax that bonded his wings. And if anything is predictable, it’s that Charlie Sheen will crash, but hopefully not to his literal death.
There’s a lot that can be said about the attention Sheen’s crackup has gotten. There’s nothing new, certainly, about the way people love freak shows. Those mysterious theaters of performance art long ago left the sideshow tents of carnivals for TV. In the beginning there were confessional programs like Oprah and Jerry Springer and those evolved into the nonstop weirdness of “reality programming.”
The attraction of freak shows is about glimpsing our own shadows at a safe distance. That means an episode that particularly captures the culture’s mass attention, as Sheen has, is probably reflective of our collective shadow.
Sheen certainly reflects the out-of-control material values that have come to define us collectively. There’s a predisposition for such in any capitalist society, but we have seen in the last few years that there are very few limits, literally, on corporate behavior.
“Winning” matters most, regardless of who is hurt. The mania of productivity matters most throughout the culture. The dispiriting thing is that the average American is suspicious of regulation to impose limits because he has the fantasy that one day he’ll also be rich, that he’ll realize the American Dream. (See Joe the Plumber.)
And then there is the value of appearance — exhibitionism to a narcissistic state. Read Twitter and Facebook for a few days if you question this. And it’s no coincidence whatsoever that when Sheen logged onto Twitter, he gained a record number of “followers” in very little time. His whole schtick, it seems, is moving online to that world — the cyber world — where superficiality and the truth matter little if hyperbole and lies are sufficiently entertaining. (Actually, TV has become much like that too. But the average person does not have access to it as a personal platform.)
Of eeriest correlation with the culture’s direction is Sheen’s high-flying mania, like the frantic consumerism that defined our lives until two years ago. It ended in a recession, a crash — a depression. Psychologically, that is completely predictable in the case of mania, as I said above. But depression has overtaken our culture to the degree that 20 percent of us are depressed at any given time, according to some estimates.
So Sheen’s drama is almost mythic in its depiction of the shattering of the American dream. The danger to the country, like Sheen’s personal danger, is that we will collapse altogether. America itself, with its dying fantasy of exceptionalism and upward mobility, is something of a puer itself, compared to the older nations of Europe. It’s time to come down to reality and face our own limitations.