The Crystal Ball: From Stage to Page

Performance Research, Summer 2004, Vol. 9 Issue 2

In his essay The Autobiographical Contract, which searches for the ontology of autobiography, Phillippe Lejeune summarises the genre as follows:

‘…a retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focussing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality.’ (Lejeune 1982: 193)

Lejeune goes on to break down this definition into four different conditions:

1. Linguistic form: (a) narrative; (b) prose
2. Subject treated: individual life, personal history
3. Situation of the author: author (whose name designates a real person) and narrator are identical.
4. Position of the narrator: (a) narrator and protagonist are identical; (b) narration is retrospectively oriented.

According to Lejeune, two of these conditions are a matter of ‘all or nothing’, which means that they must be fulfilled in order for the writing in question to be considered autobiography. They are conditions (3) and (4a); that is that the author and the narrator are identical and the narrator and the protagonist are identical.

Lejeune allows some flexibility in these general rules, for genres he describes as ‘close to autobiography’ (and thus implied as not, or separate from, autobiography). The exceptions are listed as follows (with the rule they contravene in brackets):

‘…memoirs: (2); biography: (4a); first person novel: (3); autobiographical poem: (1b); diary: (4b); self-portrait or essay: (1a and 4b).’

So diary writing and the self-portrait or self-essay are given as examples of almost-but-not-quite autobiography that contravene the 4b rule. They are forms of writing in which the author narrator may describe not just the past – what has happened to them – but also the present – what is happening to them, what they feel, what they want. Lejeune highlights these exceptions to the ‘retrospectively oriented’ 4b rule because they exist as genres at the margins of autobiography. But even these examples, which allow for a present tense as well as a past tense, exclude, or at least neglect, the possibility of a future tense.

What might an (auto)biography of the future be?

In an attempt to try and answer this question, or at least to discuss it, in June 2002, and with the support of a ‘Nightbird’ [1] commission from Duckie via Arts Council England, I produced The Crystal Ball at the ICA in London.

The Crystal Ball was an experimental theatre piece in which members of the audience had their futures predicted by a panel of experts. Those who foretold the future were: Rod Dale, an optometrist; Maura Bright, a face reader; Alan Dickinson-Quelch, a financial advisor; Tom Hoyes, an expert on ageing; Julia Laverne a psychic life scientist; Julie Unite, a career psychologist; and Robin Whitmore, an illustrator.

Greeted by a hostess who accompanied them on their journey between each of the booths in which the experts were housed, audience members spent twelve minutes in one to one conversation with each of the experts in turn. At the end of each individual session, the expert gave the hostess an outline of their guest’s prediction, which the hostess kept safe until the end of the performance, handing over the assembled collection in a cardboard wallet, with the phrase: ‘This is your future, I hope you enjoy it!’ [2]

This elaborate theatrical construction allowed (or perhaps was simply an excuse for) my own future to be written; it gave me seven predictions with which to work.

In the context of this volume of Performance Research, On the Page, I want to share two of the predictions given to me, and to consider how they might engender an exploration of the relationship between performance and the written document.

The prediction made by the optometrist Rod Dale proposes the possibility of (my) eventual blindness. This triggers a discourse which looks at the relationship between blindness, the future and performance as embodied in different kinds of writing. Within this series of conjectures there is a constant return to the status of the page: the diary page, the manuscript page, the doctor’s notebook, the books on the library shelf, and a focus on our encounter with the materiality of the page. The examples here are wide ranging (from Homer to the current UK tour of the Irish medium Sharon Neill) but with a focus on the last diary of Derek Jarman, the materiality of its pages and the diary’s relationship to his last film Blue. The relationship with the page shifts (but does not cease) with the onset of blindness.

The predication made by ageing expert Tom Hoyes proposes what (my) life will be like as part of an increasingly ageing population. This triggers a discourse which examines writing and performance through the complex relationship between J M Barrie, his creation ‘Peter Pan’ and the ‘king of pop’ Michael Jackson. It considers what happens when ageing is resisted. Michael Jackson redraws himself, literally repaints himself as Peter Pan. Jackson orients his life on Barrie’s ideal ‘Peter Pan’, a creation which is in itself a re-scripting of Barrie’s own life. The argument is that Jackson manifests Barrie’s desire. Barrie’s text is Jackson’s script. Here the page of the book becomes the ‘performance script for a life’, the embodied materiality of the page.

1. Optometrist: Rod Dale

Rod Dale is an optometrist who predicted the future of my vision. He shone a light into my eyes, looked at the optical nerve and tested my near and distance vision using lenses of varying strengths.

Prediction 1
Your left eye is slightly oval, it is not completely spherical. This is an imperfection but is nevertheless normal. You have a sixty percent chance or requiring reading spectacles from the age of forty. Given the longevity of your family it is likely that you will live over eighty-five and there is a seventy-one percent chance that you will contract a visually impairing cataract. Most cataracts are treatable. If, as is likely, you go on to live over ninety, the chances of age related macular degeneration, or AMD, the outcome of which is debilitating loss of vital central or detailed vision, resulting in eventual blindness, is about one in eight.

Note 1

Blindness and the future are linked in two separate but complementary sets of circumstance:

(i) the archetype or trope of the blind seer or prophet who sees the future, and
(ii) the person whose future is blind, both ‘unseen’ (that is withheld and unknown) and ‘unseeing’ (that is without the capacity to see).

Both of these figures – sets of circumstance – inter-relations – are manifest by, and contingent on, performance, writing and documentation.

(i) Blindness has long been associated with an understanding of a sight beyond the ocular, found in the archetype of the blind seer or prophet. The ‘father’ of this literary historical tradition is Tiresias, whose ability to see into the future was given to him as a kind of recompense for the removal of his sight. [3]

Since antiquity, ‘not seeing’ is directly linked to the capacity for precognition and prophesy. Ruth Padel writes:

‘Darkness is where we are most likely to encounter gods. And where we meet their prophets. Caves are associated with prophecy in the Greek world, as elsewhere. Zeus’s prophetic oracle was associated with the darkness of shadowy trees. The Greek seer is characteristically “dark”. The name of the Iliad’s Greek seer, Calchas, means “Dark.” Seers often work from a muchos, “recess,” or are blind. Blindness is linked to prophecy in the myth of Teiresias, the Theban seer, and many others.
Fundamental to Greek ideas of prophecy, and of the mind, is the idea that knowledge can be found in, and from, darkness. In tragedy, and the myths it explores, alternative ways of seeing may be (but need not be) “truer” than normal vision.’ (Padel 1992: 72)

This classical tradition was later picked up by Christianity where Jesus of Nazareth restores sight to the blind at the moment of their comprehension of the ‘truth’ of God, that is, they see with greater vision than sight can provide and are therefore provided with sight.

I make no attempt to offer an analysis of the drives, the psychic motivations, that underpin the trope of this reciprocity – the gift of prophesy for the taking of sight – I hope merely to acknowledge its prevalence.

Homer, a storyteller of Tiresias, is himself pictured as blind. This is the way that western culture has chosen to depict and understand the author of the texts fundamental to its cannon: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

In his study of the classical epic tradition Robert Lamberton puts forward the case that Homer himself would have been understood in the classical world as a kind of prophet, that ‘…Homer was a divine sage with revealed knowledge of the fate of souls and the structure of reality, and that the Iliad and Odyssey are mystical allegories yielding information of this sort if properly read.’ (Lamberton 1989 2)

Part of the evidence that Lamberton draws on, toward this conclusion, are the accepted autobiographical references within the two epic poems. These intertextual self-portraits have been noted in commentaries for centuries. They include characterisations in the form of Phemius and the blind Demodocus, who are both depicted as bards. There are also stylistic devices which contribute to Lamberton’s thesis. The bards within the narrative world are accorded the epithet ‘divine’; they, like the voice of the narrator, frequently call upon supernatural aid to transmit the relevant information, in exact parallel to the way in which the seers call upon supernatural aid to transmit their prophesies. The authorial voice also predicts what will happen ahead of the description of the events themselves, as if to emphasize the vast knowledge of the past, present and future which the narrator possesses in comparison with the characters of the narrative.

The extent to which Homer is seen as a prophet himself is exemplified in the renaissance conflation of Homer with Tiresias. As Lamberton is at lengths to point out, the much reprinted title page of Chapman’s Odyssey depicts the figure of Homer in the storyline of Tiersias. The author becomes his character. Lamberton further examines the antecedents for this renaissance hybrid with references ranging from Plato to Dante. What remains is an image in which Homer is surrounded by a legion of poets paying him homage, while simultaneously depicting Tiresias surrounded by the ghosts of the underworld where he remains in possession of all knowledge: past, present and future. To quote Lamberton: ‘The head, with blind eyes turned to heaven, illustrates a tradition… Homer’s blindness [is] a metaphor for transcendent vision.’ (Lamberton 1989: 8).

Recent incarnations of blind seers include the Irish medium Sharon Neill, whose ‘show’ [4] is touring the UK at the time of writing. Neill claims to have the ability to communicate with those people who have ‘passed over’, that is, from the living to the dead.

The trope of the blind seer who sees more than the seeing, is so culturally engrained, that it has its own vocabulary, a fact which is evidenced by the title of Sharon Neill’s show: ‘Second Sight’.

There is a sense in which Neill’s ability to see beyond sight is set up by the lineage she follows – a kind of predetermined performance script – in which blindness is intrinsic to the possibility of a sight beyond sight. It is no surprise that the flyer and poster campaign for Sharon Neill’s show is significantly similar to the image of Homer as Tiresias: her blind eyes turned to heaven as a metaphor for transcendent vision. Homer performs Tiresias; Neill performs Homer performing Tiresias.

There is something in this image – particularly it being a posed photograph – of the blind medium advertising her ‘show’, that triggers a complex set of responses. Our moment of privilege over her is to see the image of her as she herself can not. What is the consequence of this one-sided sight, this gaze on the self-portrait of the blind seer?

In his homage to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poet Andrew Marvell compares Milton with Tiresias:

Whence couldst thou words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expanse of mind?
Just heaven thee, like Tiresias, to requite,
Rewards with prophecy the loss of sight.

As Derrida comments:

‘Marvell compared his friend Milton to Tiresias. The poet of Samson Agonistes would have received blindness as a blessing, a prize, a reward, a divine “requital,” the gift of poetic and political clairvoyance, the chance for prophecy. There is nothing marvellous or astonishing in this: Marvell believed he knew that in losing his sight man does not lose his eyes. On the contrary. Only then does man begin to think the eyes.’ (Derrida 1993: 128)

It is, perhaps, our desire to understand natural order in terms of ‘requital’, of checks and balances, that encourages us to (always already?) accept the blind as possessing a special gift. Derrida reads Marvell’s understanding of Milton’s blindness as that which forces consideration of the visual. Language which becomes visual; words of extraordinary compass. As Derrida remarks, the blind woman or man is an ‘archivist of visibility’ (Derrida 1993: 20), for they attest to the power and potential of sight.

During the course of her show Neill often refers to matter in visual detail, passing messages from the dead which include colours and patterns normally reserved for comprehension by the sighted eye. Neill is delivering these messages, not creating them (or so we are asked to believe) and those which contain visual information, not only that the messenger could not possibly have seen but also could not ever have the possibility of seeing, contribute to the performance [5] of their authenticity.

Neill makes her blindness visual; she sees through it.

We are left to ponder: maybe Neill can see the image of the advertisement for her own ‘show’, and our seeming privilege and encouraged voyeurism is, perhaps, a bit short-sighted.

And the future?

Sharon Neill does not really claim to see into the future, although often her ‘communications’ offer advice and knowledge for the future. Rather she deals with the other present, the spiritual present of the other world. Her Second Sight is not to foretell, in any other way than to claim that that future, after death, is a present reality. She describes herself as the ‘channel’ and the ‘switchboard’ for that reality, rather than as a prophet. What she hopes to bring is reassurance that ‘passing over’ is not an ending and that mortals are watched by their beloved dead. This is the collective future of the spirit world, a generic prophesy.

So while the visual imagery advertising Neill’s show calls upon our collective cultural history dating back to the antiquity of Tiresias, her abilities have their antecedents in a different context.

The practices of contacting the dead, of seeing into ‘other’ worlds, of reading the future, have separate (and connected) histories world-wide, but the coupling ‘Second Sight’ comes from the Gaelic term ‘an-da-shealladh’ (see Spence 1951; Sabine 1949) which implies ‘the two sights’: the first being vision of the sensual world, the second of the spiritual.

In his 1951 study Second Sight: Its History and Origin, Lewis Spence convincingly argues that Second Sight ‘had its beginnings in the Highlands of Scotland in a primitive priesthood associated with ancestral worship, and originated in a very definite intention to maintain a close association with the dead and distinguished guardians of the tribe.’ (Spence 1951: xi) Through a remarkable number of case studies, Spence explores the relationship between Celtic folklore and instances of Second Sight not only in Scotland but also in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man.

This Celtic history, which sets the precedent for the Irish medium Sharon Neill, attracted national interest in the UK from the Seventeenth Century on and gathered pace with the emergence of the popular press, a spate of pseudo-sciences and an interest in the occult. Samuel Johnson who toured the Western Islands of Scotland in 1773 partly in order find out if he could attest to the accuracy of the folklore, comes back convinced and publishes. (Interestingly enough, his travelling companion, James Boswell forms a different opinion.)

This ‘Second Sight’ became corrupted into a magic show with the same name as early as 1784 when the Italian conjourer named Pinetti performed an elaborate guessing game as part of his show at the Haymarket Theatre in London. Fifty or so years later ‘Second Sight’ was the title of the sell out tour of the performer Robert Houdin and his later imitator Robert Heller. They took the folklore and made it a performance reality. In his exposé of 1880 Second Sight Explained, Washington Bishop describes and uncovers the workings of this magic act.

He explains that in ‘Second Sight’ there are two performers. One who roams the audience, picking out or highlighting something or rather for general attention which they must then ‘psychically’ convey, and another, the unseeing clairvoyant partner on stage, who must speak back to the audience what has been selected. (The performer in the audience happens upon a lady’s broach, asks their assistant what they hold in their hand and the clairvoyant describes it.) Bishop outlines, in exorbitant detail, the series of word associations and sound suggestions through which the performers communicate.

It is interesting to note the way in which Bishop describes the clairvoyant:

‘The Clairvoyant is usually a young lady, interesting in manner and dejected in appearance, as if distressed by some constant strain upon the nervous system. The Clairvoyant also presents an appearance of passive submission, as if in fear of some powerful controlling influence and, even when possessed of robust vigour, she assumes a general air of having no will of her own, and, of exceeding timidity. The Clairvoyant is blindfolded completely.’ (Bishop 1880: 8).

It would seem then, that Sharon Neill also has a lineage in Nineteenth Century theatrical spectacle.

From Tiresias at the shores of memory, to Sharon Neill at the Felixtowe Spa Pavilion (where she is showing next week) the figure of the blind seer or prophet connects a ‘performance present’ with a future life.

In all of the instances mentioned here, writing, like the future itself, is somehow deferred. Homer does not write, he works with an oral tradition; it is for posterity to write him. Milton writes his major works through an amanuensis; he speaks before his words are written. Robert Houdin’s undocumented performance code is left to be deciphered by a proto-journalistic exposé. Sharon Neill’s prediction-come-communications are passed on without the need for any mark on paper at all and are left to be written down by their recipient, at whim, some time in the future. Here the page is dematerialised by the blind writer, only to be rematerialised by posterity.

But of course the blind and the blindfolded do write; do physically put pen to paper.

(ii) The person whose future is blind – the going blind that Rod Dale has predicted (the possibility of) – also has its tropes and archetypes. The ‘notion’ of the onset of blindness with old age is a lived reality that we meet, if not personally, then through our friends, family and associates. This future of encroaching blindness puts into play a number of scripts of it’s own: the manual which instructs you on the pragmatics of blindness, the prescription that orders you a palliative, the case notes which discuss your ability to cope. These scripts come into use with necessary regularity.

The inevitable possibility of eventual blindness is played out in allegory from Oedipus on. As Freud remarks in his study of ‘the uncanny’ (das unheimliche, literally the ‘unhomely’):

‘We know from psycho-analytic experience that the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes is a terrible one in children. Many adults retain their apprehensiveness in this respect, and no physical injury is so much dreaded by them as an injury to the eye. […] A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated.’ (Freud 2001: 231)

While even Freud admits to the possibility that we might rationally just simply fear going blind for what that would in itself produce, he insists that the fear of violence against the eye is not just that of a horror of loosing sight but is also metonymic of a fear of an attack on one’s sexual capacity.

For the last year and a half of his life, the artist, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman was blind. His body was wracked due to AIDS and one of the many infections that had to be fought was CMV or Cytomegalovirus. About fifty percent of the general population and ninety percent of people with HIV carry CMV [6]. If healthy, the immune system can keep this virus in check, if weak, it will start to attack the body. The most common illness caused by CMV is retinitis, the death of cells in the retinas, which quickly causes blindness unless treated.

In his many diaries, Jarman documents his daily life, opinions and passions. In the last diaries there is an understandable preoccupation with the onset of blindness and also, interestingly in relation to Freud’s bringing together the fear of blindness and castration, Jarman records the falling off of his sexual capacity.

This is an autobiography of the dying. The artist made blind; the sexual made impotent.

Jarman had known the prognosis.

‘Ah well, it’s two years since the foundations tremored. Evil eyes. I can’t imagine going blind. Maybe that was the terrible premonition read in my hand all those years ago by Umberto Tirelli in Rome.’ (Jarman 10 August 1992)

This ‘ah well’ of resignation is typical of his seeming acceptance of blindness. Blindness has been ‘on the cards’[7], and Jarman professes, ‘I resign myself to my fate, even blind fate’[8]. This pun on his ‘blind fate’ (fate that unseeing, marked him to be blinded) is consistent with a number of word plays in the diaries where the inter-relation between arts practice, life and writing, is understood through a blindness that is at times metaphorical, at times literal, and occasionally both.

While ‘…the pen splutters’[9] before there is any problem in seeing, the way the pen does splutter for the sighted who can not see clearly to find the right words, he later ‘…run[s] out of words as the line blurs on the page.’[10] This is a transferred epithet, where the blurring of his vision is enunciated by the appearance of the blurring of the mark on the paper.

Jarman’s blindness becomes his pathway to death – to a blind forever – as his ‘diary…’, his life, ‘…slips into the dark.’ [11] Blindness becomes the metaphor for approaching death.

‘…the CMV blots out even more of the weak winter day, so I am living in a twilight, perhaps I should say my twilight.’ [12]

The closing of his vision, the closing of his life.

This relationship between his health and his writing is not just descriptive or literary, it is also very pragmatic. There are stretches of time with no entries, followed by an explanation of a period of illness (or medication) that was particularly strenuous.

‘I’ve noticed,’ he writes, ‘that the length of my diary entries reflects the state of my health.’ [13]

But blindness does not stop him writing. He likes to write in the dark. ‘I can write quite legibly in the dark,’ [14] he writes. And he does; he writes in the dark. ‘Writing blind now,’ he writes. And he does; he writes blind.

The ‘now’ of this ‘writing blind now’ is key. Much of Jarman’s diary writing is not reflective or ponderous but describes what is happening at the moment he puts pen to paper.

Jarman records the absolute present of the moment of writing. (‘My stinging eyedrops are in and the ward is turning to a blur.’ [16]) In doing so, does Jarman record his experiences or mediate them? (‘The little black floaters swirl around and make me dizzy.’[17]) Maybe it is more helpful to think of Jarman performing his experiences, for himself, to his diary. Performance, as has often been noted, exists only in the moment of its enactment. In writing in the moment of the moment, Jarman’s words become performative: they are actions which perform him.

Writing blind, about the onset of blindness at the moment of writing, reveals that the performance is, for Jarman, what it is about. It is the experience of writing itself, of putting pen to paper, which becomes the purpose to write. He can not, after all, see to read what he has written. This is not diary writing as record, but rather the forming of the materiality of the page as performance. Although clearly he writes for publication and several volumes of his diaries had already been published before these last were written, if he had wished soley, or even predominantly, to record his life for posterity, he could have chosen other, more practical methods of recording such as sound recording. Indeed Jarman does spend a considerable amount of time in his last years giving interviews about his life to journalists and academics and also to his biographer. His writing is not about a self-reflexive process, it is not writing about writing, it is rather, writing as a state of being: a performative state; documentation as performance. This is the artist writing.

The publication of the diary, which is after all what enables you and I to read it, is not its first outing. Like the performance photograph, the diary is a kind of performance documentation; something other than the performance (the life) but reliant on it. It also becomes another performance. Jarman used his last diaries as the script of his last film: Blue.

Blue is a rich multi-layered audio track of music, city, hospital and domestic sounds, and text which follows moments of Jarman’s illness and his blindness, set against a single cobalt blue projection throughout the seventy-five minute duration; the only variation in tone and texture come from the scratches on the film or dust caught in the projector, or what we ourselves manage to see there in our own mind’s eye.

Those moments of diary writing, which are of the moment of writing the absolute present, are the sections of Blue which work seamlessly in the digesis, that is, the narrative world of the film. In the context of the film, the first person present, is reanimated as speaking: the I am in this moment. Diary writing, in this context (of fine art film) moves away from personal musings and becomes a narrative world.

The single visual blue of the film not only insists that the audience create their own images, it also documents the world of the blind. As Jorge Luis Borges, another writer who went blind, recorded:

‘People generally imagine the blind as enclosed in a black world. […] One of the colours that the blind – or at least this blind man – do not see is black. […] I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in darkness.’ (Borges 1984:107)

I read Jarman’s last diaries, published posthumously six years after his death and seven years after the premier of Blue. I read them initially in order to try and elucidate the film, to see if there were any similar passages or writing, to think about the diary as a script. What was so striking was that large portions of the film script are lifted, unedited from the diaries. It was not the diary which became useful to understand the film, but the film which elucidated the diary. The seemingly obvious point that the film script of the diary makes the private public, makes a performance out of the journal, became problematic. The performance that seemed to matter was Jarman’s own: that is, himself, produced by the writing of his immediate present; the act of writing as a performance, a material documentation as performance which in turn became a film performance, itself the documentation of a blind life towards death.

2. Vice President of Age Concern: Tom Hoyes

Tom Hoyes: Advocate – Age Concern England
Tom Hoyes is the Vice President of Age Concern England and an expert on sex for the over seventies, who forecast my life in old age. He posed a series of provocative questions which encouraged a discussion about the effects of aging.

Prediction 2
I’m seventy-three and I’m going to live to one hundred; you’re twenty-nine and going to live to two hundred. Now there are all sorts of problems that this creates: financially, sexually, and for your long term health. You have to be aware that changes are going to impose themselves on you. You seem to be aware of the future, but have not formulated any plan. The time you spend with your ninety year old grandmother should give you some indication of what is in store for you and should make you feel reasonably confident about what is to come.

Note 2

Today, Friday January 16, 2004 Michael Jackson is arraigned to answer an indictment: seven charges of child abuse – ‘lewd act upon a child’ – and two of giving alcohol to a minor – ‘administering an intoxicating agent’ [18]. This is not the first time that Jackson has faced such charges, nor that the media circus surrounds these allegations. Whatever the outcome of the case, which may not reach trial for over a year, if indeed it ever does reach trial, we will perhaps never really know the veracity of the allegations, or what actually took place between Jackson and his complainant, John Doe. Without wanting to detract from these very real and serious charges, it is not the aim of this section of writing to determine what case there is to be answered, but rather to try and understand something of Michael Jackson’s relation with childhood and children, and his stated (and embodied) resistance to getting older. This is not about trying to uncover the psychological motivations for his behaviour (behaviour which is difficult to determine as it is mediated so heavily by the media) nor, to reiterate, to prove the allegations of child molestation as true or false. Rather, it focuses on how Jackson’s self-selected public image, tracks an ‘association’ with the character Peter Pan created by J M Barrie. The relationship between Jackson, Peter Pan and JM Barrie is both proclaimed by Jackson himself and manifest by his body and his surroundings. This relationship is both structural (they mirror each other) and performative (Jackson performs, and is performed by, Barrie and Peter Pan).

The main source that I will draw upon as evidence for Jackson’s preoccupation with Peter Pan is his interview with Martin Bashir which was broadcast in February 2003. In this interview Jackson corroborates many of the widely publicised biographical anecdotes of his life: that he spends his enormous wealth with the ease and taste of a child, that he is sexually naïve, that he was abused by his father, that he missed out on any substantial normal childhood experiences. For example:

Jackson: I remember precisely going to Motown Studios to record, and right across the street from the studio was a park and I could hear the roar of, you know, the lower league team, and they were playing soccer and football and volleyball and they were playing baseball. And I remember a lot of the time looking back and really hiding my face and crying. I wanted to play sometimes and I couldn’t because I had to go to the studio.[19]

This quote, is itself, from the mouth of Peter Pan, for ‘oh! how he longed to play as other children play….’ (Barrie 2000: 106)

Michael Jackson has been performing since he was five years old. He recorded his first single at the age of eight. When he was a child his performance maturity gave rise to the remark that he was ‘ten going on forty-two’, today, at forty-five, surrounded by children and childhood toys, the inverse is more frequently applied.

In the ITV interview, Bashir questions Jackson on his interest in Peter Pan and the fact that he has named his home, a three-thousand acre ranch north of Los Angeles, complete with full-scale fair-ground, after the island where Peter Pan lives, ‘Neverland’:

Bashir: The inspiration for Neverland – Peter Pan – why is Peter Pan a figure of such interest and inspiration to you?
Jackson: Because Peter Pan, to me, represents something that’s very special in my heart. You know, it represents youth, childhood, never growing up, magic, flying, everything I think that children and wonderment and magic – what it’s all about – and to me I just have never ever grown out of loving that or thinking that its very special.
Bashir: Do you identify with him?
Jackson: Totally.
Bashir: You don’t want to grow up?
Jackson: No. I am Peter Pan.

What does it mean for Michael Jackson to say he is Peter Pan?

There is no single text called Peter Pan, nor for that matter a text which is the ‘original’ or ‘authoritative’ version. The character was a creation by JM Barrie in his ‘playtime’ with the boys of the Llewelyn Davies family whom he met in Kensington Gardens and who years later, on the death of their parents, he was ultimately to adopt [20]. At first the character of Peter was based on the newest arrival to the Llewelyn Davies family – Peter – but soon the character outgrew his namesake and this original context.

In 1902, Barrie published The Little White Bird, a novel for adults about the author’s story-telling relationship with a boy, David. This novel contained a few chapters about Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. These were extracted and later formed the children’s stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy. On a parallel, yet separate, writing tack, Barrie wrote the play-text, which was first produced in 1904 but was revised continually and only finally published in 1928. Subsequently both the play-text and the story have been adapted and re-adapted by authors all over the world and the most popular stage version of recent years is itself an adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, which acknowledges in the introduction that it has ‘included a lot of new material’ based on the Barrie archive and that this has resulted in ‘significant alterations’ (Barrie 1997: viii). The character Peter Pan is not entirely consistent, starting off as a baby and ending up as a pre-adolescent boy, his adventures, as his person, shift and develop with time. Peter Pan is a concept, rather than a single character of a novel or a play.

In The Little White Bird, the narrative follows two parallel strands. The first is the narrator’s creative act – the telling of the story, the writing of the book – which is enunciated from the beginning in the telling of the whole story to the boy David, and ends with the delivery of the book itself. The second is the mother’s creative act – the making of children – which begins with David’s birth story and ends with her delivery of a second child.

In all these aspects the relationship between the narrator, the child and the child’s parents is seen as one of conflict and symbiosis. Conflict because the narrator wants full ‘possession’ of the child, as surrogate father against the birth-parents; symbiosis because the narrator has no subject or creative partner without the child or his parents. In The Little White Bird the narrator describes the symbiosis thus:

‘I ought to mention here that the following is our way with a story: First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine.’ (Barrie 2000: 100)

Such was Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. The characters and adventures which Barrie creates are developed with the Llewelyn Davies children, not just for them because they are present but literally with their input. Here not only do the characters, events, and narratives stem from an autobiographic imperative but even the development of their creation is incorporated by the creation itself.

Jackson too, proclaims that his inspiration comes from children:

Jackson: I think what they get from me, I get from them. I’ve said it many times: my greatest inspiration comes from kids. Every song I write, every dance I do, the poetry I write, it is all inspired from that level of innocence, that consciousness of purity and children have that. I see God in the face of children, and um, man, I just love being around that all the time.

The autobiographical nature of The Little White Bird has been widely noted [21], ‘so much so that [Barrie’s] work has often been seen as little more than a revelation of his complicated personality’ [22]; the narrative events mirror those in Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family but also, as his biographer Andrew Birkin convincingly argues, the character of Peter Pan is, or becomes, a reflection of Barrie’s fears and desires of childhood.

Barrie’s elder brother David died aged 13. This left his mother distraught and Barrie with feelings of low self-esteem, adult responsibility and the inability to fill the position of his mother’s favourite. This rupture in his early childhood left Barrie with a lifelong sense of, on the one hand the loss of childhood, and on the other, with an exacerbated taste for childhood. As Barrie records in the biography of his mother Margaret Ogilvy:

‘The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I also must give up the games, and how it was to be done I saw not (this agony still returns to me in dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold displeasure); I felt that I must continue playing in secret.’ (Birkin 2003: 7)

Sociologically, ‘growing up’, especially from boy to man, is a big deal. The transition is traumatic. As Germaine Greer points out in her study The Boy:

‘The rites of passage from boyhood to manhood may be as simple and as painless as shaving the boy’s head, dressing him in a saffron robe and sending him to live as a monk for a year, as is done in some Buddhist societies. Other cultures require a series of painful and dangerous rituals that enact the destruction of the boy before he can be reborn as a man.'[23]

The infliction of pain on adolescent men may seem extreme, but the coming of age, even in the ‘liberal’ west, involves the assumption of responsibilities, social and political.

‘As long as the boy is a boy, behaviours that would dishonour the head of a family are acceptable and even becoming.’ (Greer 2003: 29)

Once the transition has been made it is no longer acceptable for the man to act like a boy. But Peter Pan (and Barrie, and Jackson) does not want to grow up:

‘I just want always to be a boy and to have fun.’ (Barrie 1997: 104)

He ran away from home in fear of manhood and rejects any chance of ‘normal’ socialisation when the opportunity arises to be adopted by Mr and Mrs Darling:

‘Would you send me to school?’ he inquired craftily.
‘And then to an office?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Soon I should be a man?’
‘Very soon.’
‘I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things,’ he told her passionately. ‘I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!’ (Barrie 1999: 217)

This desire for boyhood is common enough in adult men. In the 1980’s, psychologist Dan Kiley produced a guide to what he termed ‘The Peter Pan Syndrome’.

The book is styled as a self-help manual for ‘victims’ and their ‘wives’ to deal with the key manifestations of the illness: irresponsibility, anxiety, loneliness, sex role conflict, narcissism, chauvinism, social impotence and despondency. The book opens with the chapter ‘Do You Know This Man-Child?’ and moves on to ‘The Adult PPS Victim: A Test’ which offers the reader a scoring system to determine if they have the illness or not.

The book is heterosexist and aimed at a very particular kind of man, which may account for its demise after an initial burst of popularity. It does, however, figure Peter Pan’s antics as something to be cautious and worried about, rather than harmless fun to be rejoiced in, which is the commonly held ‘panto’ assumption. Peter Pan’s desire for eternal youth and the rejection of adult responsibilities is identified here as a social pathology.

Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up is both Barrie’s brother David who could not grow up because he died in childhood and Barrie’s own longing for a second childhood; his refusal of the normal requirements of adult life. Peter Pan is also the child that Barrie never had. In one of the most revealing statements about his creation, in the programme for the Paris production of 1908, Barrie wrote:

‘Of Peter himself you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a little boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures. Perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all – a boy whom some people longed for, but who never came.’ [24]

Peter Pan is also not quite boy. Across Barrie’s accounts of the Pan adventures, it is written that before all boys and girls become boys and girls, they start out as birds. Peter is not exactly a bird, nor quite human; he is ‘Betwixt-and-between’ (Barrie 2000: 104). This is a device which enables both Barrie and the narrator to maintain creative control over the birth of children within the narrative (that is his artistic control) but it also strips human conception of its necessarily sexualised premise. (Michael Jackson relates the desexualised conception of his own child through artificial insemination during the Bashir interview.)

The relationship between reality and fantasy lies at the heart of the The Little White Bird and the other Pan adventures. This relationship works on the level of the authorial narrative, which is to say the way in which the narrator slips in and out of fantasies, setting up illusions only to destroy them, involving himself in a narrative fiction only to pull himself back to reality; but is also embodied by Peter Pan himself:

‘The difference between him and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing.’ (Barrie 1999: 128)

…and again…

‘Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.’ (Barrie 1999: 135)

The collapsing together of fantasy and reality and the inability to recognise the difference between them, is manifest in Jackson’s responses to questions posed by Martin Bashir. Not only does he laugh as Bashir questions him about death: ‘I would like to live forever,’ he also categorically refuses to admit to having any plastic surgery except ‘two’ operations on his nose, despite the fact that his face has radically altered shape as well as colour over the last twenty years:

Jackson: Come on. None of it’s true. None of it’s true. It’s BS. They made it up. They lie. They don’t want to give me credit for anything. [25]

The implication of this overt denial – that his physical body is worth credit – demonstrates Jackson’s belief that his body manifests some kind of intrinsic value, and I would argue that this is in direct relationship to the image of Peter Pan. Jackson rewrites his body as a kind of Disney-fied Peter Pan, the white pixie boy who never grows up; he redraws himself, literally repaints himself, as Peter Pan.

When Michael Jackson says: ‘I am Peter Pan’ he stakes his belief that he embodies Barrie’s fictional character. This embodiment is physical and conceptual. Jackson not only carves out his body to become Peter Pan but he lives in ‘Neverland’ surrounded by full-scale reproductions of the characters from the Disney film. Jackson lives in a giant stage-set, purposefully blurring the boundaries between the adult world of responsibility and the fantasy world of childhood. Jackson, like Peter, refuses the responsibilities of adulthood, craves the company of children and proclaims his intention for never-ending fun.

But as Peter Pan is a manifestation of Barrie’s fears, desires and personal histories, so too Jackson takes on Barrie when he takes on Peter Pan. Nowhere does this mirroring appear more stark than in Jackson’s welcoming of children into his bed. The scandal which ensued after the Martin Bashir interview, revolved in the main, around Jackson’s admission that he shared his bed (or at least his bedroom [26]) with children. The media outcry, which included calls for Jackson’s own children to be taken into care, resulted from a general incomprehension that such activities could be innocent and that they therefore were harmful to the children involved. Again, it is not my intention to comment on the rights or wrongs of this behaviour, not least because the precise nature of what happened is so unclear. However, it is surely no coincidence that the key scene in the narrative of The Little White Bird turns on exactly the same action. The chapter opens:

‘David and I had a tremendous adventure. It was this – he passed the night with me.’ (Barrie 2000: 154)

…and reaches its culmination thus:

‘What can it be, David?’ ‘I don’t take up very much room,’ the far-away voice said. ‘Why, David,’ said I, sitting up, ‘do you want to come into my bed?’ ‘Mother said I wasn’t to want it unless you wanted it first,’ he squeaked. ‘It is what I have been wanting all the time,’ said I, and then without more ado the little white figure rose and flung itself at me. For the rest of the night he lay on me and across me, and sometimes his feet were at the bottom of the bed and sometimes on the pillow, but he always retained possession of my finger, and occasionally he woke me to say that he was sleeping with me. (Barrie 2000: 157)

Although latterly Barrie’s reputation has been entangled with allegations of paedophilia, allegations categorically denied by the Llewelyn Davies boys, at the time this was written the adult-child sleepover was accepted as an act of innocent platonic parental love. Even in this context however, purity is at the limit of acceptability.

It is difficult not to see Jackson’s fixation with Peter Pan and Barrie’s oeuvres caught up with this. Jackson manifests Barrie’s desire. Barrie’s text is Jackson’s script. It is well publicised that Jackson has read ‘everything that JM Barrie ever wrote’. It is as if Jackson finds his license in the world of fiction.

The irony of Jackson’s stated embodiment of this fictional character, his materialisation of the text, is that Peter Pan’s eternal youth and his inability to grow up, derives from his premature death. Peter Pan is a living death, and the way to get to Neverland is to die. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, where child mortality was such that twenty-five percent of children did not survive beyond five years, an epoch where Barrie’s own brother was locked in the memories of the family as a thirteen year old boy because of his premature death, Peter Pan is a representation of the sinister and the tragic, rather than the youthful or the immortal. Peter Pan is not about a child’s desire to stay young, but the adult’s desire for the child; the vicarious understanding of the world through the eyes of the child, the mourning at the loss of childhood. As Jacqueline Rose summarises in her study of Peter Pan:

‘Childhood persists – this is the opposite, note, from the reductive idea of a regression to childhood most often associated with Freud. It persists as something which we endlessly rework in an attempt to build an image of our own history. When we think about childhood, it is above all our investment in doing so which counts.’ (Rose 1993: 12)

That investment may be different from person to person but it is an investment which plays centre-stage for Michael Jackson. Employing a fiction as the motivational force for his life-performance, Jackson has internalised JM Barrie’s creation to the degree that he can state: ‘I am Peter Pan’.


[1] ‘Nightbird’ is the title given to theatre company Duckie’s biannual series of ‘experimental’ and ‘risk taking’ audience interactive events.
[2] The crystal ball ran for two days with four performances each day and a total of seven people per show as ‘full’ audience members (many more came to watch, find out what was happening, and to see the hostesses perform their dance routine at the change over from one prediction to the next). A total of fifty-six people had their futures presented to them. The reactions were varied. Everyone that I spoke to found the experiences affecting in some sense or another. Some found a strong need to talk about their experience in detail – others felt very private about it. While the numbers were limited, The crystal ball sold out completely two weeks in advance and there was clearly something in the idea which had an appeal: seven predictions in an hour and a half for £10. It became clear in discussion afterward that many people who booked tickets did so despite never having considered or consented to having their ‘fortune’ told outside the context of art – on the pier, in the stars, for example – and that it had been quite shocking to them to be confronted with a future that they had neither considered nor anticipated discovering.
[3] The two main versions of how Tiresias lost his sight can be summarised as follows: (a) He saw Athena bathing; since his mother was her friend, she did not cause his death, but blinded him and gave him the power of prophesy by way of compensation. (b) He one day saw snakes coupling and struck them with his stick, whereat he became a woman; later the same thing happened again and he turned into a man. Being asked by Zeus and Hera to settle a dispute as to which sex had more pleasure of love, he decided for the female; Hera was angry and blinded him, but Zeus recompensed him by giving him long life and the power of prophesy. [ See The Oxford Classical Dictionary] Tiresias goes on to prophesy the future and his prophesies often rotate around acts of seeing; for instance, that Narcissus will live as long as he does not see himself. [See Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind p.17]
[4] Her term, not mine. [5] I do not use the word ‘performance’ here to indicate that the messages are not authentic (though personally I happen to believe they are not) but rather in consideration of the way in which ‘authenticity’ is itself manifest.
[6] Statistical information on CMV was sourced at on 12/09/03
[7] Jarman Tuesday 11 August 1992
[8] Ibid. Wednesday 12 August 1992
[9] Ibid. Thursday 6 February 1992
[10] Ibid. Thursday 24 September 1992
[11] Ibid. Thursday 29 October 1992
[12] Ibid. Wednesday 3 February 1993
[13] Ibid. Friday 22 May 1992
[14] Ibid. Monday 24 August 1992
[15] Ibid. Tuesday 22 September 1992
[16] Ibid. Thursday 10 September 1992
[17] Ibid.
[18] Direct quotes from the Felony Complaint publicised by the County of Santa Barbara District Attorney
[19] Bashir, Martin 2003 Living with Michael Jackson Broadcast February 3, 2003 ITV
[20] For biographical detail on JM Barrie and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family see Birkin and
[21] For detailed comments on the relationship between Barrie’s published work and his own life, see Birkin.
[22] Andrew Nash in his introduction to Barrie 2000 (1902)
[23] Greer continues: ‘The Barabeg of East Africa inflict a series of deep cuts across the boy’s forehead that lay bare the bone. The Native American Luiseños of southern California stake the initiate out on an anthill. The Poro of Sierra Leone first circumcise the boy, then push him face down on the ground and cut deep gashes in his back with a razor; these are said to be the marks made by the fangs of the Poro spirit who eats up the boy so that the man may live. At puberty the Masai boy is circumcised; for eight to twelve months thereafter he must wear white face paint and dress in black. He is then ready to become a moran and join his age-set living in the bush, raiding settlements for cattle to build up their herds. Before he can be accepted as a man, the moran must kill a lion single-handed. As a moran he is encouraged to bedizen himself with beads and other ornaments’ he may wear his hair long and elaborately braided or modelled into fantastic shapes with red ochre.’ Greer p.13/14
[24] Quoted by Caird and Nunn in Barrie 1997
[25] There has been much documentation and speculation on Jackson’s facial reconstruction. See for instance:
[26] A decade before the Bashir interview, when facing allegations of child molestation in 1993, Jackson had admitted to letting children sleep with him in his bed. This statement is qualified in the Bashir interview, with Jackson saying that he sleeps on the floor when children take his bed. What Jackson intimates is that when he has ‘kids’ over to stay, it is similar to the kinds of sleepover that he didn’t have when he was a child. These ‘innocent’ sleepovers are contrasted with Jackson recalling that when he was a child singer on tour, he was put in the same room as his brother, and that his brother would be engaging in casual sex with a groupie, while Jackson was supposed to be asleep.

Bibliography / References

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