Lisa Chaney: Michael Jackson's tragedy is in misunderstanding Peter Pan

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The Independent Online

As we survey Michael Jackson's weird existence, it is tempting to seek explanations for the barmier aspects of the singer's behaviour in J M Barrie's Peter Pan. Jackson, we know, has repeatedly publicised his fascination with the boy who plays for eternity, while his ranch, Neverland, is dedicated to Barrie's symbol of fantasy fulfilment. Jackson's claim to "total" identification with Peter Pan led him, in response to a question from Martin Bashir, to an extraordinary reply. Looking straight into the camera, with a hair-raising intensity, Jackson gave his answer: "I am Peter Pan."

So, of course, the Pan parallel provides some answers. But while Jackson may have seen the film and bought the T-shirt, in his macabre battle to fend off the ravages of time, he seems to have missed the point of the play, its tragic theme.

It is not the simpering escapist fantasy about refusing to grow up it is so often made out to be. Knowing that essential aspects of what he wanted to say were difficult to accept, Barrie's witty and humorous style of presentation belied his deeply serious purpose. Time's intimations of mortality obsessed him and he wished that the universe were different. Why was it necessary to abandon childhood and a life of play? Why did one have to become adult and responsible? Why couldn't time stand still?

The Barrie/Jackson comparisons don't end there. Both had tortured early years. From earliest childhood, Barrie's mother hardly acknowledged him and then, after his elder brother died, he sought to win her approval by emulating - even imitating - him and bypassing years of his own development, effectively "losing" his childhood. His unconsummated marriage to a pretty actress ended in a stigmatising divorce when her affair with a much younger writer was discovered. Like Jackson, his was a generally unorthodox and enigmatic nature. Jackson repeatedly claims that he too lost his childhood; only his was to a father whose ruthless ambition effectively forbade him to play.

Both Barrie and Jackson were driven to create their own worlds as mechanisms of psychic survival, a way of enduring the harsh reality of their earliest experiences. Meanwhile, each routinely enlisted the aid of children, especially little boys, to recapture their childhood and set their imaginations free; Jackson says: "My greatest inspiration comes from children." Our post-Freudian world clamours at the potential for sexual deviance in the familiarity of these relationships, and the accusations of homosexuality abound. Whatever Barrie's thoughts may have been, for all his attachment to little boys, as an old man one of them declared that he had "never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophilia" and that if Barrie had "either of these leanings... I would have been aware". But here Jackson and Barrie's lives radically diverge.

Barrie may never satisfactorily have resolved his dilemma, but he knew his lot was not to live for ever. His record-breaking masterpiece is an anguished cry that he couldn't be the sublime immortal boy who revels in the sovereign power of the imagination and will never grow old. He understood the dangers of a life of fantasy and wanted to issue a warning that we attempt to dispense with time at our peril.

Barrie was intent on revealing how a fantasy inhabited for too long is a disappointing and inadequate substitute for the real, however lacking in direction that reality may at first appear to be. Michael Jackson, though, long ago committed the terrible error of believing he could recast himself in the image of Pan, Barrie's heartless little god. Now he is being painfully exposed to this lesson, and we have yet to see if he can face up to it, or if in failing it will ultimately destroy him.