Roots of Persona
The idea of the persona has been around for ages, with roots stemming back to ancient Greek and Estruscan civilizations. Over the centuries the use of the term has shifted, evolved and, in response to new technologies, taken on new meanings.
The most common contemporary meaning of the persona is a role played by an actor. This developed from the original Latin meaning of “theatrical mask.”
In ancient Greece the persona (prósōpon) was a mask put on by stage actors, signifying either a character or a social role.¹ The masking effect was created by rubbing clay or dyes on the face or by wearing masks made of bark or similar natural elements.
Persona in Literature
The New Latin term dramatas personae refers to characters listed at the top of a play.
In literary theory the persona is the alter ego or alternate “I” who speaks in a poem or novel, often when some kind of issue is worked out through the narrative. This also happens in movies a lot, which of course, are based on a written script.
Persona in Religion and Society
Persona later referred to “person,” as in persona non grata (Latin: “person not appreciated”). This diplomatic usage means persons not wanted in a country. That is, bad apples.
This kind of persona is arguably semantically related to the New Testament phrase, “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). That is, bad persons.
Theologians maintain that God wishes us to cooperate with the divine will. So striking out on our own, based on a personality fragment, whim or selfish desire, is not necessarily in line with God’s will.
“Person” in this theological sense means those whose thoughts, feelings and actions are based on self-centered personality traits instead arising from a living relationship with God.
The many psychological, sociological and spiritual applications of the term persona are often nuanced to fit various theories and agendas. Related ideas like Bad Faith, False Consciousness and The Divided Self run through the humanities and social sciences, with endless discussion and elaborations by different schools and their offshoots (e.g. existentialism, humanism, Marxism, neo-Marxism, postmodernism).
Persona and Carl Jung
For the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, the persona is a necessary social identity. Jung says the persona is a convenient or appropriate face we display to the outer world. The Jungian persona is not the true self nor the ego but it serves a crucial role in facilitating social interaction.
Jung and Jungians also say there is a danger in identifying with the persona after a social performance is over. This not only happens with ordinary people but sometimes with actual actors. Recall the tragedy of Heath Ledger (1979–2008), who apparently was haunted by the demonic Joker after completing the The Dark Night film.
Aside from this, Jung makes a general distinction between the healthy and unhealthy persona. The healthy persona is connected with deeper aspects of the self and acts as a conduit for archetypal energy. The unhealthy persona is constricted or cut off from the self.
On this point Jung arguably doesn’t appreciate that a tight-fitting persona may be temporarily necessary for some religious people who normally enjoy the more expansive worldview that comes through a relationship with God.
Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good or reap outwardly visible rewards, as Jung’s model seems to advocate. Jung’s outlook is probably based on his own experience, which sometimes seems like that of a kindergarten mystic. He’s had some basic interior experience but nothing profound nor advanced.
Jung’s theory advocates a “doctrine of [psychological] integration,” as I’ve put it elsewhere, so Jung seems to devalue – or not fully understand² – anything that favors the afterlife over this world.
For Jung and many Jungians, being spiritual is tantamount to having a meaningful, productive and creative life. A worldly life informed by the archetypes. These folks may paint, dance, sculpt or even talk about ESP in dreams. But they tend to be somewhat indifferent to the idea of prayerful or contemplative intercession. Intercession involves upward mobility, as it were; whereas Jung’s theory is stuck on the ground.
Jungians would probably see personas displayed and sacrifices made for the attainment of heaven – instead of for visible, worldly achievements – as skewed, fake, or even pathological.³ That’s partly why I don’t spend much time with Jungians. It is also why not a few religious persons tend to view Jung’s work with suspicion.
Persona and Proselytizing
Some uphold the persona to convey a particular belief system held dear. Missionary Christians, for instance, apply personas not just for social convenience, but to try to “fish” for souls—that is, to lead others to a spiritual relationship with Christ.
As a tool for facilitating religious conversion, the persona becomes a kind of well-intentioned lure. After all, the New Testament Christ says his disciples will become “fishers of persons” (Matthew 4:19).4
Persona in Music
In music, performers weave entire identities and motifs into songs or albums. This is common in pop and seems to be creeping into classical performances, where performer and performed are a cohesive package. Nigel Kennedy comes to mind. Charlotte Church. And more subtly, Joshua Bell and Angela Hewitt, whose sublimated sensuality pervades their performances.
Some cynically say that pop and classical personas are just glib attempts to boost sales. But I think they are part of parcel of the entire message. Would Ziggy Stardust have been a hit if David Bowie did not dress in costume during live performance? And going back even further, would Sgt. Pepper’s have been a landmark if the Beatles hadn’t dressed up and played the roles on the album cover?
In pop music the persona is also a device where lyrics are spoken or rapped over music.
Examples are in Robbie Robertson’s song “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” and Frank Zappa’s “Camirillo Brillo”:
Is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?
Drake especially seems to effortlessly blend song and talk, so it’s hard to tell where the talking ends and the singing starts.
in Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 Guru raps in “Living in this World”:
What’s happening… check it out
It’s critical the situation is pitiful
Bear in mind you gotta find somethin spiritual
We never gain cause we blame it on the system
You oughta listen whether Muslim or Christian
or any other type religion or creed
Persona and Social Media
Social media gives us a whole new context for the persona. Also known as the avatar, gravatar, or buddy icon, the internet persona allows users to post with some degree of anonymity and creativity.5
This can be used for good or ill, depending on the user and arguably as legally construed by a host country. Spend some time in another country and you’ll soon find out that what is okay in one place is not necessarily okay in another—hopefully before you go to jail.
² Jung says that Origen castrated himself to immerse himself in his gnostic spirituality. But I find this odd. Most mystics assert that the retention – not the elimination – of seed (a poetic way of saying semen and sperm) is vital to spiritual functioning and wellness. Sperm is manufactured in the testes.
³ I’ve encountered some Christians who are pretty clumsy at this. One guy on a bus bent my ear for over an hour, trying to convert me without realizing that I had already chosen Christ. He was a non-denominational or Protestant Christian – I can’t remember – but I’ve witnessed the same kind of clunky and irritating “fishing” among Catholics playing a self-aggrandized role of do-gooder or holy person instead of focusing on their own self-knowledge and ethical behavior.
4 A good discussion about the persona, personality and labels: https://upsidedownchronicles.com/2013/07/04/who-am-i-personality-vs-persona/
5 Because users have an identifiable IP address, they are not fully anonymous.
The Greatest Quest: The Search for Meaning & Finding our Calling. (elephantjournal.com)
As God Promised (1) – Muoka Lazarus (vanguardngr.com)
Embracing darkness and shadow that we might also be light and joy (beyondmeds.com)
15 Shocking Things You Didn’t Know About The Dark Knight Trilogy (screenrant.com)
New Ken artist John Dorinsky bringing dreams to life (triblive.com)
Another church attack in Anambra (sundiatapost.com)
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD to Open on Broadway This Spring (broadwayworld.com)