Downton Abbey

Is There Enough Internal Conflict in Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson?

Mr. Carson, Downton Abbey's butler.   Image from

Mr. Carson, Downton Abbey's butler.  Image from

He seems pretty easy to type- as a stickler for decorum, serving the Crowleys properly and containing his emotions- Mr. Carson, the butler on Downton Abbey, seems to fit pretty neatly into the Type One constellation of characteristics of the Perfectionist.  We can all be perfectionists from time to time in our lives, but Ones take the compulsion to bring everything into alignment with their inner "north star"-- that which is good, virtuous and true-- to the level where it defines their entire approach to life. 

Let's look in depth at the logic behind the type to see if anything's missing in Carson's portrayal... because seriously, where is his anger? He does get exasperated from time to time, but he's usually walked it off between the kitchen and his office.  Where is the perpetual, roiling frustration with imperfection?

In Personality Types, Riso and Hudson describe the healthy Type One as "conscientious with strong personal convictions, [with a desire] to be rational, reasonable, and self-disciplined, mature, and moderate in all things".   When they're in the average levels (where 99% of the world inhabits), those traits become a bit more rigid, resulting in an inability to appreciate themselves or what arises in their environment as inherently good; thus, they become trapped in an interminable mental habit of trying to alter their behavior or that of others to fit their definition of perfection.  In their minds, they are responsible for maintaining a high standard of practices, and if it weren't for them, the whole order of things would fall apart.

We do see Carson time and time again correcting others, noting a tear in their uniform, demanding that they carry out their duties with more seriousness, or that they serve the food with the proper gloves.  But if he's a Social One, he'd be more complainy and huffy (not to mention more sociable), and if he's a Self-Preservation One, there would be more attempts at self-improvement, and the anger would be almost invisible except in private with Mrs. Hughes or alone in his office.  We can get into distinctions of the subtypes of Ones later, but first let's look at the overall traits of the type called The Perfectionist.

Not only is Carson a product of the One-ish Victorian/Edwardian era where libidinal energy is moralized and kept strictly under wraps throughout the land, but Carson is a personification of the archetype himself.  His personality is largely responsible for casting an air of severity, gravity and seriousness to the downstairs culture of Downton Abbey, but maintaining order and making sure staff are kept in line are actually his job, so as a One, he's perfectly placed as the butler.  Moreover, he's perfectly cast, as I believe the actor who plays him is also a One. 

So with all this drive for perfection in the culture, the script and in the actor himself, I wonder if something is missing in his portrayal of a One.  The whole crux of their internal dilemma hinges on a simultaneous desire for perfection and an unwillingness to admit an ounce of badness or wrongness into consciousness, whether their own or anyone else's, so instead of relaxing into the perfection of life as it arises, they try to change it, correct it, or rigidly suppress it.

This idea that everything is already perfect is the Holy Truth for the Type One.  It's not an easy one to swallow, though, and Sandra Maitri, master of depth psychology in the Enneagram field, helps us understand the truth that Ones are trying desperately- and justifiably- to bring to the world.  "Without the filter of the subjective self", she explains, "we see that all of existence has a quality of completeness, wholeness, and faultlessness just because it is."  She borrows an analogy of Almaas' to expand:

We know from physics that atoms are the building blocks of all matter, and they in turn are made up of subatomic particles like electrons and photons, and smaller still, quarks and gluons.  All atoms are complete, whole, and perfect unless they are altered, which is what happens when we create a nuclear explosion.  At this atomic level, whether the atoms make up an emerald or excrement, the reality of each atom is still perfect.

But when there is so much war, selfishness, and hatred in the world, how does it make sense to say that everything is perfect as it is?  I believe Almaas' response is probably something that one can only see through many years of meditation. 

The way we ordinarily see the world is not the way it really is because we see it from the perspective of our judgments and preferences, our likes and dislikes, our fears and our ideas of how things should be.  So to see things as they really are, which is to see things objectively, we have to put these aside- in other words, we have to let go of our minds.  Seeing things objectively means that it doesn't matter whether we think what we're looking at is good or bad- it means just seeing it as it is.  If a scientist is conducting an experiment, he doesn't say, "I don't like this so I'll ignore it."  He may not personally care for the results because they don't confirm his theory, but pure science means seeing things the way they really are.  If he says he is not going to pay attention to the experiment because he doesn't like it, that is not science.  Yet, this is the way most of us deal with reality, inwardly and outwardly.

The personality, the filter that separates us from Essence, prevents us from seeing everything as inherently good and complete, a particularly painful loss for the One.  We can trace their compulsion to correct herself or her environment back to the pre-verbal stage of infancy when, as Freudian developmental psychologist Margaret Mahler suggests, the infant, having just emerged from the womb, still has a pristine sense of awareness that everything is connected, and they are connected to it all through mother's warmth. 

The perfect circle, otherwise known as the Monad, contains everything and is integrated with everything within it.

The perfect circle, otherwise known as the Monad, contains everything and is integrated with everything within it.

If we were to get metaphysical, we can go back even further than Freud to the Greek philosophers who understood spiritual characteristics to be connected with the numbers one to nine (which curiously correspond to the Enneagram's nine types), and in his book, A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, Michael Schneider shows how the first numeral, represented by a perfect circle, or the "Monad", demonstrates the unity underlying our perceived separateness. 

The Monad, or oneness, expressed as a point and a circle, is the foundation for our geometric construction of the universe.... We, too, are part of the world's harmonious design and can't help but express the Monad's principles in the things we do and create.  Everything seeks unity.  The goal of many religions and mythic ordeals is to return to a lost state of Divine Oneness.  But we have no need to return to a state of oneness because unity is axiomatic, and we already are integrated in it.... Only a self-imposed illusion of separateness keeps us from recognizing our own centre of awareness and identity with the One.

About six hundred years later, the neo-Platonist Plotinus developped an eloquent system of thought based on this concept of The One, massively influencing Western thought for the next couple of millennia, but we won't go there.  Rather, let's just say that when we're in touch with the fundamental principle of essential wholeness, we see that

... who we are is inherently and implicitly perfect, ...we are just right as we are, ... we do not need anything added to us or subtracted from us.  ... From this angle, we see that we do not need to become better, that we do not need to be different, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with us.  All we really need to do is to connect with and realize our inherent perfection.

But obviously the type One baby can't see this and there is nothing that can be done to prevent her inevitable disconnection from this understanding.  Usually before the age of four, she learns to see herself as separate, beginning with the first stage in all babies' cognitive development, learning where their body ends and mother's begins.  Understanding herself as a separate body from the arms that hold her is the foundational principle of object relations, with unique implications for all of the types' identity formation; for the Type One baby, the distinct "I" slowly starts being reinforced as it begins to experience imperfection in herself or the world, leading her to start opposing certain experiences, further "reinforcing the 'I' that is reacting."  Maitri explains how baby might come to develop an aversion for imperfection:

[It] may arise in concert with an early childhood in which the message was communicated directly or interpreted that he just wasn't good enough or wasn't the right thing.  This may have resulted from his biological needs being subtly or overtly judged and rejected, leading to the sense that they were wrong, or from having an overcritical and emotionally withholding parent who imposed very high standards that seemed to the young One impossible to live up to.  One or both parents may have had very One-ish tendencies such as strong moral judgmentalness and fundamental religious beliefs.  Sometimes the whole early situation was a setup, in which he was looked to by the parents to fulfill unfillable needs, such as replacing a lost loved one, resulting in a profound sense of not being good enough or having what it takes for the task.

In an attempt to please her mother and get back to the bliss of connection with Essence, the "I" of the Type One learns to align with the Superego, their conscience.  Trying to paddle backwards to Essence results in frustration for the One, though.

Regardless of the source [of feeling wrong], the One is left with the sense of not being what was needed or wanted in the environment and of being somehow wrong.  In order to return to his prior state of bliss, it becomes critical for him to deduce, form, and create an idea of what perfection is.  He tries to figure out what mom wants, what will restore the sense of harmony and once again allow his soul to relax and reconnect him with the lost perfection.  So his instinctual drive to reestablish homeostasis is turned toward trying to be good, achieve perfection, and make mommy happy.  Eventually his drive energy gets fully coopted into this striving for perfection, and in time this quest turns him against his own instinctual energy.

At this point, it must be reiterated that parents don't necessarily make us into our types.  They may have been quite enlightened, or they may have been abusive, but wherever they lie on the spectrum, the baby will still separate from Essence and develop a personality, so it's less a question of blaming parents for not being able to mirror our True Nature as it a question of taking this information and learning from it to shed our layers of personality so we can re-access the particular quality of Essence associated with our type.  Maitri explains why I think Carson isn't having enough inner conflict.  Unable to completely please mom,

[he] comes to feel that he is imperfect, and it may seem to him as if the very substance of his soul had a fundamental flaw, a basic badness or wrongness about it.  There arises a mental fixation or underlying and all-pervasive belief that he and the reality he perceives are essentially imperfect, not good enough.

The shape representing the Type One and his distortion is the perfect circle divided in half.  By aligning with the Superego, the One is inherently divided against himself.  He's got a good self and a bad self, which is ironic because more than any other type, the One's driving force is to be in integrity with themselves.

The shape representing the Type One and his distortion is the perfect circle divided in half.  By aligning with the Superego, the One is inherently divided against himself.  He's got a good self and a bad self, which is ironic because more than any other type, the One's driving force is to be in integrity with themselves.

Every disavowal of his inner experience, says Maitri, strengthens the perosnality and his identification with it. 

I know we at some point need to talk about the subtypes because Self-Preservation Ones see the badness mainly in themselves, and Social and Sexual Ones perceive the badness mainly in other people, although there is overlap, so let's just go with the underlying issue that the One perceives badness "somewhere" and wants to correct it out of themselves or others. 

This disgust with badness and wrongness is where the One's vicious cycle begins.  Their experience of themselves or their environment as imperfect only makes them even more driven to bring every aberrant urge and drive to order.  As a consequence of not making the mark, which, as it is always extremely high, they rarely do, the instinctual heat of anger arises, but because anger is a "bad" emotion, one of the very uncivilized instincts that needs to be suppressed, the Superego charges the One to block out her anger, but because emotions have to go somewhere, it gets leaked out or it explodes under the immense pressure that their inner catch 22 puts on them.  When a One gets angry at someone who just won't change, or at themselves for indulging in chocolate cake, the Superego judges the One even harsher for their perfectly human reaction, resulting in an incredible amount of pressure that the One must daily endure under the serene composure that they feel is "the right" face to present to the world. 

So the irony for the One is that they want so badly to be in integrity with themselves, but in their bid to be perfect, the Superego forces aside the animal nature instead of facing it head-on, resulting, as Maitri explains, in the most entrenched and hardened split between the Superego and the Id of all the nine types. 

In his righteousness about fighting the good inner fight, he neglects to see that his rejection of the primitive within does not transform it but instead only gives it more power in the unconscious and causes it to leak out behaviorally in one way or another. 

So if the hypothetically "pure" One is a perfect circle, able to abide in deep serenity with all that is, including having a transformative compassion on the parts of them that feel wrong, the average One is a divided circle, harshly rebuking itself for tolerating its own base instincts, causing him to lash out at others to relieve some of the pressure, resulting in an even harsher rebuke from the Superego for not being able to contain the already unrelenting storm of punishment within himself.

Internally, the "bad" parts of himself are pushed away and so they also appear to be outside of the good self he takes himself to be, and his aggression is directed just as mercilessly against these bad parts as it is toward the badness he sees in others.

Only in private or under intense enough pressure, the anger comes out, and depending on the subtype, it manifests as anything from huffiness and annoyance to an intense volcanic eruption.  Sandra Maitri defines the spectrum of severity of their outbursts:

Most Ones repress their anger unless they are convinced that it is objective, and then they feel justified in giving vent to it.  Some Ones simply seem perpetually annoyed, peeved, and irritated by everything and everyone, while others have flashes of righteous indignation which feel fully warranted because of the "obvious" badness, meanness, or unworthiness of another.  Some Ones are like pressure cookers who keep a lid on their rage until it reaches critical mass and they blow a gasket.  They may appear calm and serene most of the time, but in the privacy of their own homes with those they feel comfortable with, they explode in critical tirades or violent rages complete with thrown dishes, slamming doors, if not physical violence.

A person could definitely build a case for Carson being a Social One based on the fact that we've seen him correcting others time and time again, and he does get huffy more than we see any concentrated ourbursts of anger.  A Social One, according to Beatrice Chestnut, sees themselves as the model of perfection for others to learn from, "a paragon of correct conduct".

Non-adaptability or rigidity refers to the tendency of this character to rigidly adhere to particular ways of being and doing things, as a way of expressing exclusive ownership of the "right" way to be, think and behave.... The Social One has a (usually unconscious) need to feel superior or to appear superior (because a conscious desire to be superior would constitute bad behavior).  It is as if they are implicitly saying, "I'm right and you're wrong".  They have an underlying need to make others wrong to have some power over them.  If I'm right and you're wrong, then I have more right than you to control the situation (Chestnut, 2013).

Clearly, Mr. Carson does see himself as a model that the servants should emulate, but I don't see an insecure need to be better than others, let alone the instinct to socialize.  In his defence, he doesn't come into contact with many people on his level that he could socialize with, with whom he can let down his guard- his old friend with whom he used to lead a salacious life is probably the closest thing he has to a friend in the show, and then there's Mrs. Hughes, although I think Mrs. Hughes, being a female means, in his conservative mind, that she is more wont to give into indulgence than him due to the weakness of her sex.  The problem with being a Social One is that because they see themselves as above others, appear to be aloof, and always think they're right, they would inherently have a hard time making true friends, so maybe by his age, he's tried and given up.  Furthermore, I think Social Ones are deliberate about reaching out with a smile and looking friendly and approachable because that's what a good person would do, and I don't see that effort in Carson. 

If he's a Self-Preservation One, on the other hand, he would only be correcting and scolding the servants because it's his job, not because of a savior complex that he has, and he would do it in a quieter, more disarming manner, I feel.  His main concern, the source of his worries, is if he is a good enough person, although again, that doesn't stop a Self-Preservation One from being concerned with how his staff present in front of the Crawleys. 

In conclusion, I might be making too big a deal out of Carson not suffering enough, but I'm deeply suspicious of anyone who has a perfectly polished exterior, and I'd much rather know how and when they get mad than have to walk around on eggshells wondering when they're going to explode.  So this post maybe speaks more to my nervousness around smooth and squeaky clean people than the fact that there's anything wrong with Jim Carter's acting or Julian Fellowes' writing, although I do feel that Fellowes needs to decide if Carson is a Self-preservation One or a Social One (he's not even close to a Sexual One).  It might be that the actor is Social, and he's playing a Self-preservation character, which could explain why Carson is able to shake off his peevishness so easily in the five steps between the kitchen and his office.  Either way, there are depths to which Fellowes could be taking this character for a more realistic portayal of a One if he so chooses.  His complex portrayal of Mr. Bates, another type One on the show with an intense Sexual instinct shows that it's not just ignorance of the type that's preventing him from going deeper with Carson.