Coinciding with my work to put together this little book of essays about the survival of the creative spirit in a world gone mad with commerce, the sudden and premature death of Michael Jackson last week is another sad reminder that success in the commercial world is no guarantee of satisfaction and fulfillment.
I have to say that I know virtually nothing of Michael Jackson’s music; and what I think I know of him as a boy-man has been gleaned, over the years, from media reports that are notoriously geared to the more sensational aspects of his life than to its realities. Even so, the trajectory of his creative life seems clear, and sadly familiar in its outline: early success—amazingly early, in Jackson’s case—and adulation; a childhood fraught with demands, expectations, and outright abuse; huge financial returns—and equally huge losses; a troubled adult life, in which substance abuse and a self-destructive eating disorder become methods to deal with the unremitting pain of having to live up to the persona one projects; paranoia, caused by the constant prying of the media, and suspicion of friends and family alike…
It’s not a new phenomenon. Even before the Romantics came along with their tragic view of the artist as one living at the edges of reality, bordering often over into madness, the reputation of the reckless, drunken, death-defying poet was established. And it’s true, I think, that certain creative minds are driven to test the frontiers of the human mind and the limits of human behavior. Imagination is a faculty that enables the mind to run wild, to shake off the shackles of mundane reality and take us to places never before seen or dreamt of. Insanity is not so different, perhaps. It might even be, as some have suggested, that the artist’s creation is a—more or less—controlled form of insanity.
Curiously, though, it seems that success, for the creative mind, is as hard to cope with as is failure—and that both are equally illusory. The meteoric life and death of superstars in the past century—from Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and countless others; a constellation now joined by Michael Jackson—is testimony to the unhappy truth that the return for one’s creative work is never enough. The appetite to be seen, heard, recognized, rewarded is, for some, insatiable; and the insecurities of those who experience these returns are no less—perhaps even greater—than those who strive for them without success and agonize over their supposed inadequacy.
The lesson that I suppose we all must learn if we are to survive as artists, writers, musicians—creative people of all kinds—may seem like a cloying and irritating cliché: the only lasting, satisfying reward, if we can find it, has to come from within. No amount of adulation from the world out-there will do it. No amount of material comfort, no fortune earned is enough. We will still want more. We will still look at the work we do and feel that it’s not good enough. We’re actually convinced that we are the frauds that others fail to see.
The hard part is to be able to experience that inner satisfaction without the complacency that is, for the artist, a kind of death. The life of the artist is the life of the exploring mind, which needs the edge of adventure to keep it moving forward into the unknown. For Michael Jackson—more than for the rest of us, I suspect—that particular Middle Path was a painful and daunting one, and eventually an impossible one to follow. I have to honor him for having danced it as he did, with verve and grace, as a gift to his fellow beings.