Royal Pain

Lacking a monarchy of our own, Americans raised Elvis and Marilyn to sovereign status -- but the very vulnerability that drew us to them was their downfall

Ten years ago, Dr. David Rosen visited Elvis Presley's grave at Graceland and burst into tears. The McMillan Professor of Analytical Psychology, professor of psychiatry and professor of humanities in medicine at Texas A&M University stood at the eternal flame and cried. And he hadn't a clue why.

True to his Jungian training, Rosen vowed to find out. He's spent every odd moment of the decade researching a book about Elvis Presley's hold on the American psyche. And he's decided that Presley was, and is, the King.

In the Jungian view of the collective unconscious, we all carry certain archetypes, among them the King and the Queen. That's because, throughout history, royalty have served as a bridge between God and the rest of us. (Remember the "divine right of kings," the Chinese emperor's "mandate of heaven"?) But here in the defiantly democratic U.S. of A., we have no royalty. So if we can't forge our own direct link to the divine, we wind up swooning in quasi-religious ecstasy at rock concerts, raising up movie stars until their feet rest on billowy clouds of fan mail. Rock & roll and movies are the quintessentially American forms, and from them we draw our pantheon. At its top, we find Elvis -- who galvanized the uniquely American rock & roll and starred in movies to boot -- as our populist King, and Marilyn Monroe as our Queen.

Both Elvis and Marilyn symbolized qualities for which popular culture was starving. Both combined physical beauty and sexual allure with intense need. Both craved the reassurance of worshipful crowds -- Elvis said performing was like making love to the crowd. (At his comeback concert, Rosen says, Elvis had to change his leather pants midway through, because he'd ejaculated.) Both let us project whatever qualities were missing in our culture onto their smooth skin. Both had egos too fragile to sustain the larger-than-life personas we imposed.

Both self-destructed.
And we made them into icons.
"Jung said that when religious values begin to lose their hold on a culture, there will be some individuals that will be possessed by the missing energies," explains Dr. Vocata George, a Jungian analyst who practices in Cleveland but joined Rosen in St. Louis last week to give a workshop on Elvis and Marilyn. "These people somehow embody what is missing. We all have an archetypal core to our personality, aspects that reach beyond the individual. But Jung would say that if you don't have a strong ego base when you are young, you are very prone to invasion by an archetype."

It sounds like a low-budget science-fiction movie. But George says Marilyn Monroe, an orphan in search of a father's love, had a wide-open vulnerability that dovetailed with our need for an Aphrodite figure, a goddess of love and sexuality. "We'd just come out of World War II, and we needed something soft and sweet and beautiful," George explains. "Marilyn's woundedness and her beauty made her the candidate. She was kind of a girl-child; she didn't threaten the patriarchy. Her sexuality didn't scare men the way Madonna might." Thus Aphrodite began to creep in, restoring values the religion had lost and giving women permission to be sexual without being punished.

Elvis had a similar softness, and he, too, gave permission to the wilder energies. "Elvis calls to mind both Adonis and Dionysus," notes Rosen. "He was clearly a mama's boy; he adored his mother and was devastated at her death. And he had a feminine quality that made him androgynous. Christ was like that; Adonis and Dionysus, too. They are mother's-son gods, lover-gods. Dionysus was so popular with women, they would leave their husbands to follow him, just the way young teenage girls left their rigidly conservative Southern homes to sneak into an Elvis Presley concert and go into ecstasy."

Rosen thinks that Elvis, like Marilyn, was a forerunner of the women's movement, because his free, powerful sexuality encouraged female fans to claim the same erotic prerogative. "Women screamed, had orgasms. Elvis would crash to the stage in total exhaustion. This is Dionysian."

And this was the '50s, a time of racial, social, sexual conformity everywhere but onstage. "Elvis broke barriers," says Rosen. "His first hit in Memphis was 'That's All Right Mama,' an old blues song, and the DJ had to announce his high school so people would know he was white."

Civil rights, women's rights -- Elvis begins to sound like a do-gooder. "He was a good person, amazingly generous, and he was on a spiritual quest," continues Rosen. "All you have to do is listen to his gospel albums. His only Grammy was for gospel music; that's when he really let go. With 'Teddy Bear,' you can hear how constrained he is; in 'How Great Thou Art,' he just busts free. As Plato said, music finds its way to the soul."

Born of a Jewish-and-Cherokee mother and a Scots-Irish father, Elvis grew up amid alcoholism and drug addiction, in a First Assembly of God home in the poor-white South. He used to wear a Star of David and a cross; he said he didn't want to be barred from heaven on a technicality.

He had a twin who died at birth; some say his intensity came from the compulsion to live two lives. Yet "the early Elvis was not self-destructive or addicted to anything," Rosen's quick to point out. "He started taking amphetamines when he was in the Army to stay awake for guard duty."

He never stopped. "Amphetamine and 13 other drugs were in his blood when he died, including anti-depressants, codeine and other narcotics," recalls Rosen. "I don't think he meant to kill himself, I just think he was in so much pain." Physical or psychological? "He had glaucoma, and he was constipated from the narcotics, but other than that...

"He died while having a bowel movement," Rosen adds, taking a swipe at divinity. "The coroner said there is a mechanism when you are straining -- if you have a real big problem you can cause the heart to go into dysrhythmia. He was later discredited because there were so many toxins in Elvis' blood. But he'd lived that way."

Some say he's still living. "The sightings are like seeing the Virgin Mary, or a saint," notes Rosen. "We project it, because we want some linkage ourselves with the spirit." Is that what the legions of Elvis impersonators want, too? He chuckles. "They are like a cadre of priests that go out and spread the word. And it's unusual -- we don't have impersonators of Sinatra, even though his death saddened people. We don't have this huge worldwide network of early, midlife and late-life Elvis impersonators of every race and nationality.

"We don't have living religions, really, in this country," he continues. "So you can feel it being born. There is an eternal flame at Graceland, and in mid-August, during the week of Elvis' death, they open the gates to his grave site and hold a candlelight vigil. It's like a holy place. Last year, 50,000 people went. And, next to the White House, Graceland is the second-most-visited place in this country, over 1 million a year."

Why aren't there sightings of Marilyn's curvy corpus, or vigils at her grave? "I think we are more king-oriented," replies Rosen. "We're more patriarchal; God is viewed as male. Although in England, Princess Di was sighted within a week of her death.... " George hasn't fathomed the subtle hierarchy, but she does point out that "there are postcards with Marilyn in the center of the Last Supper. And there is a painting in which her face comes through the face of a Madonna." (The traditional Madonna, not the contemporary one.) "I do see people who idolize her."

Marilyn's big with the unchurched gay subculture, offering the same sense of beauty, artifice, vulnerability and tragedy that elevates Judy Garland. Elvis, though, taps into something at once more mainstream and more extreme. "There are between five and seven churches established in his name," notes Rosen, "including a Hindu church, El-Vishnu, that says he was a reincarnation of Vishnu, god of the blues, sorrow and creativity." The rest are Christian revisions: "One lost soul was unemployed, didn't know why to live, heard a voice in the desert and swears God told him, 'It's not Jesus, it's Elvis, and that is your mission.'

In Jungian language, this is the "mythos of the quest and the eternal return." Elvis fans don't use that language, but their agenda matches. They want, for example, the young Elvis back -- on the postage stamp and in the sightings -- rather than the "troubled and inflated" man who bore a little too much resemblance to our own flawed humanity.

"We project the King archetype rather than sorting out our own link to the divine, and that's unfair," remarks Rosen. "I see Elvis as a mirror of our problems. He was addicted and obese, with poor eating habits -- bacon sandwiches, cheeseburgers, grease and excess." Like Marilyn, he struggled with self-hatred and self-destructiveness, was consumed by his work, accumulated vast wealth (he had to build extra rooms at Graceland to hold all his gold records and awards), gave large amounts of money away on impulse, drew people to him and was destroyed by their adoration. "That's American," concludes Rosen. "You can achieve all this, but it will kill you."

Rosen and George spoke at the St. Louis Art Museum last weekend, collaborating on a workshop sponsored by the C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis.