It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.
excerpted from The Pygmalion Project, by Dr. Stephen Montgomery
Copyright © 1989 Stephen Montgomery
In Greek legend, a brash young sculptor named Pygmalion found the women of Cyprus so impossibly flawed that he resolved to carve a statue of his ideal woman, embodying every feminine grace and virtue. For months he labored with all his prodigious skill (and also with a strange compulsion), rounding here, smoothing there, until he had fashioned the most exquisite figure ever conceived by art. So exquisite indeed was his creation that Pygmalion fell passionately in love with the statue, and could be seen in his studio kissing its marble lips, fingering its marble hands, dressing and grooming the figure as if caring for a doll. But soon, and in spite of the work's incomparable loveliness, Pygmalion was desperately unhappy, for the lifeless statue could not respond to his desires, the cold stone could not return the warmth of his love. He had set out to shape his perfect woman, but had succeeded only in creating his own frustration and despair.
The premise of this book is that, in our closest relationships, we all behave like Pygmalion to some extent. Many of us seem attracted at first to creatures quite different from ourselves, and seem to take pleasure in the contrast. But as we become more involved and start to vie for control of our relationships, we begin to see these differences as flaws. No longer satisfied with our loved ones as they are, we set about to change them, to transform them into our conception of what they should be. No longer able to appreciate our loved ones' distinctive ways of living, we try to shape them according to our own values or agendas. Like Pygmalion, in short, we take up the project of sculpting them little by little to suit ourselves. We snipe and criticize, brow-beat and bully, we sculpt with guilt and with praise, with logic and with tears -- whatever methods are most natural to us. Not that we do this ceaselessly, nor always maliciously, but all too often, almost without thinking, we fall into this pattern of coercive behavior.
And like Pygmalion, we are inevitably frustrated, since our well-intentioned efforts to make over our mates bring us little more than disappointment and conflict. Our loved ones do not -- cannot -- comply meekly with our interference in their lives, and even if they were to surrender to our pressure, they would have to destroy in themselves what attracted us in the first place, their individuality, their distinct breath of life. Our Pygmalion projects must fail: either our loved ones fight back, and our relationships become battlegrounds; or they give in to us, and become as lifeless as Pygmalion's statue. In this paradoxical game, we lose even if we win.
In the legend, as it turns out, Venus took pity on Pygmalion and brought his statue to life, and he and "Galatea," as he named her, blushed, embraced, and married with the goddess's blessing. The rest of us, however, cannot rely on such miraculous intervention. Living in the real world, we are responsible ourselves for the success our relationships, and this means we must find a way to abandon our Pygmalion projects, by learning, if we can, to honor our fundamental differences in personality. For only by respecting the right of our loved ones to be different from ourselves -- to be perfect in their own ways -- can we begin to bring the beauty of our own relationships alive.
The argument of my books is not entirely new. I take my main title, in fact, from David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates's Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types, and throughout these pages I am indebted to their wonderfully perceptive analysis of human behavior and relationship styles. However, the nature of my evidence -- literary characters -- is unusual, and needs perhaps a few words of explanation.
I make at the outset one I hope not too obvious assumption: that the skillful novelist or playwright and the skillful temperament psychologist are both, of necessity, skillful people-watchers. The cornerstone of realistic fiction has always been the story-teller's astute observation of human behavior, and thus we marvel at how "lifelike" are his characters or how "true-to-life" are their experiences. The so-called "Romantic" and "Symbolist" writers might have loftier visions, but they base their characters nonetheless on real human types before they transcend to their ideal worlds or retreat into their private fantasies. Even such clearly unrealistic forms of fiction as myth and caricature build upon a thorough knowledge of human characteristics. The Greek epic heroes, as well as the gods, are plagued with all our human foibles, and Charles Dickens's most grotesque characters exaggerate our most familiar human traits. As one literary critic has put it:
Literature portrays almost every conceivable human action, thought, attitude, emotion, situation, or problem. In one way or another people are basic to the literary imagination, even in its most fanciful flights.
Certainly fictional characters are not real people, and to insist on their reality might close us off from an author's unique imagination. And yet, in most cases, even in the eccentric world of a writer like Franz Kafka, a story lives for us and catches us up in its artifice because we see ourselves and our predicaments in its characters. In other words, when a story catches, as Henry James put it, "the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm" of human behavior, we know that we are "touching [the] truth" of life and breathing the "air of reality." And such a personal recognition can delight us -- or disturb us profoundly -- with its accuracy. Suspecting this, Hamlet instructed a troupe of actors to touch his uncle's conscience with a scene from a play, and in his famous speech he defined the power of fiction to make us perceive ourselves more clearly:
the purpose of playing...was and is, to hold, as "twere, the mirror up to nature"
In much the same way, the writing of the more perceptive temperament psychologists also unnerves us with this rush of recognition. To read David Keirsey's sixteen character portraits in Please Understand Me is indeed to look in a mirror. When I began to edit Please Understand Me, I remember browsing ahead in the manuscript and being quite shaken by the air of truth in my own portrait, the "INFJ" Author, as Keirsey called it then. I felt quite found out at the time, almost as if some novelist or playwright had sketched me in his working notebook. (More than a decade of reports from Please Understand Me readers of all types suggests such unmasking is frequently the case.) I found the other portraits nearly as fascinating (though no one is quite as fascinating as oneself), and as I worked on the manuscript I realized that Keirsey's word portraits of Isabel Myers's four-letter designations (the Inspector for Myers's "ISTJ," the Performer for the "ESFP," and so on) were offering me an extraordinary instrument -- a flexible and surprisingly accurate vocabulary for discussing the vast array of human personality.
As with all experience of a new vocabulary, I began to see the world around me with new clarity and in new detail, and very soon my family, my students, my colleagues, friends and foes alike, found their way into the categories of personality I was internalizing. Not that they were reduced from complex individuals, but the broader lines of their attitudes and imperatives came into focus. And in my profession -- reading and teaching literature -- I made a two-fold discovery. Not only could I analyze characters and relationships with more insight, but I began to see that throughout history the great novelists and playwrights had been bringing to life the same gallery of real-life characters that Keirsey was describing in Please Understand Me, and in his more recent book, Portraits of Temperament. The impulsive Artisans ("SPs") and the spiritual Idealists ("NFs"), the logical Rationals ("NTs") and the dutiful Guardians ("SJs) -- all kinds and combinations of these characters lived in the pages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, and many, many more.
It should not have surprised me, really, that characters in literature fit so naturally into Keirsey's categories. After all, as the esteemed critic Robert Scholes has argued, novelists and playwrights create their characters from two impulses: "the impulse to individualize and the impulse to typify." One might even say that much of the interest (and the charm) of fiction lies in its power to be discriminating and representative at the same time. Writers (particularly Idealist ["NF"] writers) cherish the mystery of the authentic soul and bristle at the idea of putting unique human beings into "boxes"; but the best of them also admit that their characters typify larger categories of humanity. Thus Henry James cautions us that "Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms," but he also understands that "Art is essentially selection...whose main care is to be typical." Literary criticism has long endeavored to unravel characters' individual peculiarities with the help of so-called "depth" psychology; temperament theory can now provide us with a finer language (a finer "vocabulary" as I have called it) for describing the more fundamental, shared patterns of human behavior, first in the literary characters and then in ourselves.
My hope in these books, then, is to marry these two characterologies into an informative and I hope entertaining look at the different ways people go about their love relationships. Perhaps by seeing literary characters as portraits of human character styles (Jay Gatsby as a Promoter Artisan, say, or Jane Eyre as a Counselor Idealist), we can learn something about our own interpersonal styles with our loved ones. Perhaps by regarding the lives of literary characters as virtual case studies of the Keirseyan Types, we can, in the mirror of these fictions, better recognize ourselves and our own Pygmalion projects. Which returns me to the topic of my books, surely the most coercive relationship of all: Love.
Approaching temperament styles through literature in one way broadens the field of observation -- all of those stories, all of those characters -- but it also narrows the focus to those subjects about which literature is most discerning. And, without a doubt, love is the subject upon which literature lavishes most attention, and offers most insight. Love, courtship, passion, marriage, this "constant sensitiveness of characters for each other," as E.M. Forster described it, "this constant awareness, this endless readjustment, this ceaseless hunger" -- love in all its forms and complications dominates the literary imagination, and provides a wealth of detail for the reader with an eye for character types. To be sure, the games and the rituals, the dreams and the strategies of love so tirelessly pursued in novels and plays amply illustrate Keirsey's portraits of the Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, and Rational mating styles, as well as largely support his theory of the Pygmalion project. For better or for worse, we do seem irresistibly attracted to human types far different from ourselves, and we do attempt -- and almost invariably with unfortunate consequences -- to reshape our loved ones in our own image. This is the abundant evidence of literature.
Temperament theory and literature thus combined offer us more than either abstract psychological categories or esoteric "literary" characters. Broadly and systematically defined by the temperament psychologist, and then richly detailed by the novelist or playwright, these are our relationships, depicting our attractions and regrets, our fantasies and disillusionments, our coercions and compromises. If we will look into the mirror of fiction through the powerful lense of temperament theory, we might come to understand ourselves more clearly, and perhaps see the Pygmalion in us all.
Examples: The Pygmalion Project: The Champion (ENFP) | The Pygmalion Project: The Teacher (ENFJ)
[ Mating Relationships in Fiction | Mating & Temperament ]