Why did the news of Michael Jackson’s death seem to touch off a tsunami of shock & grief that circled the globe? What accounts for the spontaneous, make-shift shrines to him that sprouted up in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia? How do we account for the people of all ages who clustered around these shrines to dance, sing, and lay wreaths of flowers?
The outpouring of emotion over the King of Pop’s passing was apparently greater than that which followed the death of the beloved British royal, Princess Diana. This is even more curious when you consider that he had been living in seclusion for the last four years, hadn’t released a new album in eight, or toured in over a decade. What’s going on here?
In the discussion that follows I would like to suggest that the public response to Michael Jackson’s death has something to do with the archetypal energy of the Puer Aeternus, (Eternal Youth) that he seemd to embody.
The term, Puer Aeternus was first used by Ovid in The Metamorphosis to describe a golden child who exudes the seductive, androgynous sexuality of Adonis, the protean creativity of Prometheus, the orgiastic energy of dance and drink of Dionysus, the distant, entropic self absorption of Narcissus, and the fickle, flighty passion of Eros.
These qualities clearly shone through Michael Jackson on stage. In his private life as well, Michael deliberately modeled his life on a modern version of the Puer Aeternus, Peter Pan. Most people are familiar with Peter Pan, the magical child who refused to grow up and chose instead to spend his life in a fantastical place he called Neverland. Less well understood are the shadowy characteristics of the Puer, and the difficulties they encounter in the real world.
To begin I would like to briefly summarize the plot of J.M. Barrie’s novel and draw a few comparisons between Peter Pan and Michael Jackson. The story opens in the nursery of the Darling family in Edwardian England. Inside the nursery are three young children. Peter Pan flies up to the open window, perches himself on the ledge, and tries to seduce the children to come with him to a magical place called Neverland. Peter is frightened away by Nana, the family watch dog who leaps up and shuts the window. Peter flees but not before his shadow gets caught in the window casement and is torn off as he makes his escape.
While the idea of losing one’s shadow has a quaint, fairy tale quality to it, a closer look at this notion from a Jungian perspective reveals more about the personality of the Puer. Dr. Jung developed the term “the Shadow” to describe the region of the unconscious in which immature, undeveloped, primitive instincts, impulses, and unflattering aspects of personality reside.
Jung felt it was important to develop a relationship and become conscious of the Shadow in order to keep these primitive and undeveloped characteristics in check and not allow them to get acted out in the real world. Finally, Jung believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is [also] the seat of creativity.” (Kaufman, C. 2009)
Returning to Barrie’s story, the now shadow-less Peter returns the following night and convinces the children to fly off with him to Neverland. They participate in a series of fabulous adventures in Neverland and eventually clamor to return home. Peter flies them back to the Darling’s home where he is invited to join the family. Refusing to grow up, Peter rejects their offer of adoption. A compromise deal is struck instead. Peter is permitted to fetch Wendy once a year and bring her to Neverland for a short visit.
A year later, Wendy waits by the window for Peter. He does not arrive. Another year passes, and then another, and another without a visit from Peter. Eventually, Wendy stops waiting. Some 20 years later, Peter shows up, having no idea he is two decades late for his play date.
The passage of time is an anathema to the Puer. Like most young children, the Puer lives in and for the eternity of the moment. Peter is shocked to find out that in his absence the Darling children have grown up and now have families of their own. Even more painful, Peter learns that they have no memory of him or their adventures in Neverland. This is all too much for Peter who flies off never to be heard from again.
The parallels between this fictional character & Michael Jackson’s life are eerily similar. Michael transformed a 220 acre ranch into a magic playland for children, complete with carnival rides, exotic animals, and fun activities for kids. He named this place Neverland and soon began whisking children away from their homes to idle there with him.
Somewhere along the way, Michael Jackson’s seemed to have lost his shadow. His unconscious desire to turn back the hands of time and recapture his youth by interacting with little children crossed over into behavior that was potentially improper. Even more troubling was his apparent ignorance around the inappropriate nature of inviting young children to share his bed at night. Further, Michael Jackson seemed completely out of touch with reality when he faced the cameras and openly acknowledged he was sleeping with young boys. When challenged about his conduct. Michael brushed aside the idea that there was nothing wrong or inappropriate with this behavior.
As to what actually took place between Michael Jackson and those children, the only people who know for sure at this point are the children themselves. He was found not guilty of the child molestation charges lodged against him and, in the absence of any new revelations, it is pointless to speculate. What is not open to speculation, however is how oblivious he seemed to be regarding the propriety of his behavior.
Much like the petulant Peter Pan who refused to join the Darling family and flew away, Michael Jackson rebuffed his family’s attempt to reconnect with him after the trial and chose instead to fly away into a self-imposed exile. He went on to lead a reclusive, nomadic life, punctuated by occasional displays of bizarre behavior such as dangling his infant son over a hotel balcony. All of this seemed to add to speculation that the illumination of Michael’s shadow had somehow unhinged the superstar.
It should be noted that Michael Jackson’s ability to plumb the depths of the Shadow’s creative well was apparent to anyone who ever watched or listened to him. His ability to inhabit and project emotional energy through his musical performance from a very young age seemed to draw on resources far beyond his years and experience.
This was particularly true of the way Michael danced. When asked how he developed such original dance moves and choreography. Michael said he had no idea. For him the process was completely unconscious. He said simply that dance was his body’s response to the music. Though he was a consummate professional and perfectionist Michael Jackson seems to have had complete faith in his innate ability to channel and interpret the Shadow’s creativity.
Even Michael Jackson’s attempt to “come back “20 years after his meteoric rise to fame seems reminiscent of Peter’s ill-fated return. It is interesting to note that one of his biggest on-going fears was that his fans had forgotten or forsaken him.
At this writing Michael Jackson’s toxicology report has not been made public. We don’t know exactly what drug or drugs stopped his heart. What we do know is that Michael had been taking prescription medications for physical pain & insomnia since 1984 and that he struggled with chemical dependency for many years. We also know that Propofol, a powerful anesthetic was administered nightly to help Michael Jackson get to sleep. It is not hard to view his nightly use of medication as a chemically induced trip to Neverland; a trip from which he ultimately did not return.
As to why Michael Jackson’s death created such a spontaneous, global ground swell of emotion, I believe his sudden, unexpected passing briefly sparked to life the archetypal energy of the Puer Aeternus in each of us. It is as though a jolt of archetypal energy surged through the power grid of the collective unconscious, making our individual lights glow a bit brighter for a moment.
I also believe his iconic, child-like energy and enthusiasm had a vitalizing effect on us about which we were scarcely aware until he died. In retrospect is it not that hard to fathom. The fantasy of eternal youth is one of our oldest and enduring defenses against mortality and the ravages of time. Haven’t we all, at one time or another found ourselves imagining what it would be like to be a child again? To be blithely unaware of the passing of time, untethered from adult responsibilities, and free to play to our hearts content? Michael Jackson embodied this unconscious desire more than anyone else in my lifetime. For years he seemed to fly above the quotidian concerns of adulthood and elevated the art of play to new heights.
Another indication of this archetypal energy is the paradoxical ways the public responded to Michael Jackson’s death and the positive and negative projections it elicited. Myths have the uncanny, oxymoronic ability to simultaneously evoke an idea and its opposite and balance them in a kind of dynamic tension. We see this at work in the public perception of Michael Jackson as a child abusing pedophile as well as a world ambassador for children’s rights with a well documented reputation for generous donations and philanthropic work in defense of children around the world. Though impossible to reconcile these two views, both surfaced with equal vigor in the public consciousness.
A closing thought. The video of Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire was recently released. Watching it, I couldn’t help but experience a sense of mythic foreboding. This short film clip seemed to capture the ageless story of the Puer Aeternus: that with the death-denying attempt to remain a child comes a childish hubris that lacks the necessary grounding and discernment – the judgment, wisdom and experience of age – to avoid flying too close to the sun.
(Kaufman, C. 2009) Three-Dimensional Villains: Finding Your Character’s Shadow; http://archetypewriting.com/articles/articles_ck/archetypes2_shadow.htm) Retrieved August 8, 2009 from the Wikipedia.com website.