Friday, June 26, 2009

Life as performance art.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us mourn the passing of America’s finest performance artist, the man who so loved a literary genre that he used his whole life to emulate it.

The Gothics were, of course, the literature of terror and horror of the late 18th and 19th century. The Gothics began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and ended around 1830. The most common male character in the Gothic is the Hero-Villain. The roots of the Hero-Villain lie in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Satan’s combination of admirable and objectionable qualities–his dignity, evil, and defiance against a power he knows he cannot beat–have led many critics to see him as the hero of the poem. Milton’s Satan was influential on the Romantics, and through them the Gothics, as was Sensibility, the privileging of emotions over rational self-control and the indulgence of what Goethe called the dämonisch, or “daemonic” impulse, the unquestioning trust in the correctness of one’s instincts and emotions, regardless of the laws of morality and society.

The Gothic writers used the model of Milton’s Satan and the Sensibility/dämonisch to create the Hero-Villain, the dominant villain of the Gothic genre. The Hero-Villain commits evil but is never purely evil. He is a mix of violent passions and uncontrollable impulses which he knows to be evil but cannot resist or overcome. He has great intellectual and physical gifts, great strength of character and will, but uses them for evil ends. The Hero-Villain is attractive to the reader because of his passion and great abilities as well as for his temptation and suffering, but he is villainous because of his final surrender to evil. The Hero-Villain is tormented by his own dark urges at the same time that he torments others. He is, in the words of Charles Maturin, one “who can apprehend the good, but is powerless to be it.” He is not an anti-hero, for he is set in opposition to the hero or heroine of the Gothic, and his downfall is the hero’s triumph and the victory of good. But the Hero-Villain is a waste of potential and a lesson in what the inability to resist temptation and one’s impulses can lead to.

I give you Michael Jackson, the world’s biggest fan of the Gothic. Does not the preceding description fit what we know about Michael Jackson? More, doesn’t his life embody not just the Hero-Villain, but the Gothic itself?

Consider the main themes and symbols of the Gothic. There is the villain as ethnic Other--Jackson turning himself from African-American to some sort of visually Unheimliche being. There is the scary castle with secret passageways--Neverland Ranch. There is weather as an objective correlative (physical manifestation of emotion and other immaterial things) for the protagonist and villain–the sunshine of Santa Barbara (home of the Neverland Ranch), like the sunshine of Southern California, is too bright, too sunny–a kind of desperate and even ominous sunshine, like a smile that widens and widens until it is literally rather than figuratively from ear to ear. There is the notion of the body as monstrous–witness what Jackson did to his face.

The Gothic has innocents threatened and pursued by the Hero-Villain, and we can only imagine what horrors went on in the Neverland Ranch when one of Jackson’s overnight guests didn’t want to cuddle in bed with Jackson. The Gothic has the supernatural as an accepted part of life–and “Thriller” introduced more people to zombies than every George Romero film put together. The Gothic had high-pitched emotions aplenty, including swoons and fits–well, just read Jackson’s lyrics. In the Gothic, patriarchal figures are almost always revealed to be tyrants–and we all know about the abuse which Michael’s father inflicted on him. In the Gothic, clergy are nearly always corrupt–something the adult Michael said about the Jehovah’s Witness authorities who were a part of his childhood. In the Gothic, birthmarks are often crucial in the resolution of a plot–as was Jackson’s vitiligo and the marks on Jackson’s penis which Jordan Chandler described in the 1993 sexual abuse case against Jackson.

Consider, too, the categories of Gothics. The two main ways of categorizing Gothics have always been male-vs-female and external-vs-internal. The “male Gothic” puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression and usually reduces the heroine to the status of object, to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and eventually married. Jackson’s life was full of transgression–sexual (the pedophilia), racial (from black to Unheimliche), and religious (from activist Jehovah’s Witness to atheist, both of which Middle America fight transgressive). And how else can we describe Jackson’s “marriage” with Lisa Marie Presley but his acquisition of a thing, an object, which he can use as a shield against rumors?

The “external Gothic,” or socially-oriented Gothic, is concerned with the home: the lineage and patrimony of the hero, his disinheritance by the villain, and the revelation of the hero’s true identity and the restoration of his estate. In the external Gothic the home is defined by the male’s possession of it (or the lack of same). Doesn’t this define Jackson’s entire life? His patrimony (the atrocious, abusive Joseph Jackson), his disinheritance (Jackson’s estrangement from his father), and Jackson’s quest for the epiphanic revelation of his true identity (what else can we call the ongoing transformation of his face) and for the restoration of his estate? The external Gothic is about regaining the true home--remember what Frost wrote in “Death of the Hired Man:”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Jackson never got either, did he? He had to create his own home, and fill it with odd animals, and ship in children who could however briefly fill the role of the “they” who had to take him in, and take part in a painfully awkward arranged marriage so unconvincing that his wife had to reassure the public that they were, in fact, having sex.

I call that devotion to the Gothic, and to performance art–taking your embrace of the Hero-Villain role and the core elements of the Gothic. Well done, Michael Jackson, well done.


baileythebookworm said...

Awesome. Kudos to you. Well-written, well thought out and very true.

Jess Nevins said...


Synd-e said...

This is an excellent post. I have absolutely no knowledge of The Gothic in literature, but not only did this post do an excellent job explaining why MJ was the ultimate Gothic Hero-Villain, it gave me a primer on Gothic as well.

What is disgusting me the most about the press coverage is that they are not stating the obvious outright - MJ was (likely) a child molester. Never convicted, but almost certainly for sure. The strange thing is some of the more feminist blogs I read have posts about him inviting readers to "share their memories", but never condemns him as a criminal. These are sites that regularly savage Roman Polanski. It makes no sense. Either separate the person from the art they create, and evaluate them separately, or see them as inseparable, and evaluate them as the package of person+art.

It also irritates me that lots of very young hip-hop artists are coming out and saying that MJ was a huge influence on them, which I find very difficult to believe.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it more accurate to say the Gothic influenced the Romantic rather than the other way around, at least in literature in English?

Jess Nevins said...

Synd-e--thanks very much! Couldn't agree more--the urge by the public to forgive a celebrity's sins is mystifying and reprehensible.

Is it so difficult to say that he was a bad person who made great art? He wouldn't be the first by any means.

cameron said...


you say:

It also irritates me that lots of very young hip-hop artists are coming out and saying that MJ was a huge influence on them, which I find very difficult to believe.

Why difficult to believe? MJ is a direct influence on hip-hop, most obviously through the sampling of his recordings, which continues to this day (the most recent one I know of is Kanye West's "Good Life" which samples "P.Y.T.")

These very young hip-hop artists you speak of didn't experience Jackson's peak (79-84, IMHO) directly, but they have older siblings, and work with DJ's and MC's that certainly did.

Jess Nevins said...


I'm having a hard time seeing how sampling someone's work means you're influenced by them.

Care to expand on your argument?

Badd Bob said...

I'm having a hard time seeing how sampling someone's work means you're influenced by them.

Well, they were at least moved enough by the hook of a song to base another song on it. I'm not saying that every DJ/MC claims influence from every other artist they sample, but with Michael Jackson, it's probably a good bet.

Kanye is presumably not one of these "very young" rappers (he's 30-ish, I think) that Synd-e refers to, and he is of an age that Thriller almost certainly had a major impact on him. I'm making an assumption here, but the odds are in my favor.

These are all judgment calls, so of course it's all relative. Was James Brown influential on Eric B. and Rakim and Public Enemy? The answer seems obvious. Was Kraftwerk influential on Missy and Timberland? Ni@@a please. Did Michael Jackson influence Kanye, Daft Punk, Justice, Timberlake, Usher? You tell me, people.

Let me take another argument: whether they know it or not, Jackson was an influence on all "very young" pop/hip-hop artists' careers, most obviously by being "very young" himself when he entered popular consciousness.

Synd-e said...

Actually, I'd like to add/revise my original statement.

What really irritates me is the media frenzy in general over MJ's death, especially because a few years ago during his molestation trial, he was portrayed as nothing but a pervert and a freak. It's really difficult to watch the media interview "fans" who say that he was great, he influenced so many people, etc., when they likely hadn't supported his career in more than decade. It's as if they totally forgot about the sub-par albums he made in the mid/late 90s and thereafter. I'm sure some of those younger hiphop musicians probably called MJ a freak, f@ggot, queer, etc. along with many, many other people.

Who I'd really like to hear from are the people who stood outside the courthouse every single day of his trial.

Really, I'm tired of seeing coverage of MJ's death on blogs that really have absolutely nothing to do with his music: Boing Boing? Gizmodo?

Also, I too believe that sampling does not equal influence. There are artists who have built entire compositions out of samples (e.g. Negativland, Girl Talk) without necessarily being musically influenced by them.

Badd Bob said...

Ok, so maybe some of those kids called him a faggot, but you can't assume they all did. I'm not part of the "black community" but the impression I get is that the more the American (read: "white") media pounded Mike's name into the ground, the more the Community came to his aid. Not for nothing did Jermaine send Michael off with a blessing from Allah.

My point is that most of the whining and bitching about Michael Jackson being a pervert or a queer likely came from your white friends' sons and daughters.

The Professor said...

One of the interesting things about the reaction to Michael Jackson's death in the media and on the net is the the persistent assumption that we actually knew this person and had any idea of what he was like. This seems to be a common attitude about many celebrities but it's especially faulty in regards to Jackson who seemed to want to present a persona that was obviously based on fantasy.
Which is why this particular analysis is so apt. It deals with the only aspect of that person that we can know, which is the character that he metamorphosized into over the years. And what a strange silent movie, stop action transformation it was. The man became a fiction and Lit Crit may be our only way to understand him in a realistic way. Also the post was educational. Because knowing's half the battle...or something.

Irene Kaoru said...

Great post, I enjoyed this thoughtful tribute to one of the greatest entertainers of our time.

Synd-e: He was acquitted in a court of law. What is more disgusting to me is the continuing accusations against a gentle and talented man who was publicly dragged through the humiliation of a trial already and found innocent. Should we "condemn" all criminals based on our personal suspicion, regardless of the outcome of their trials? Is mob rule the best rule? I think not.

Kynn said...

It also irritates me that lots of very young hip-hop artists are coming out and saying that MJ was a huge influence on them, which I find very difficult to believe.

Just... wow.

Do you know anything about hip-hop, or music at all?

cameron said...

thank you, Kynn -- those were my exact feelings after reading that statement.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I agree with all of it. The only thing I'd add is that just a few months ago, reportedly, MJ converted to Islam. You can add that big one to your list of religions that mainstream America suspects and/or reviles.