Aristotle's Criteria for a Tragic Hero
Aristotle’s acumen in The Poetics designates criteria of character for the tragic hero. First, the tragic hero must “portray efforts to bring about a ‘good’ result” in the world while displaying “a zealous and energetic goodness” (Humphrey House, Aristotle’s Poetics: A Course of Eight Lectures. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961, p. 84-85). Jackson loved his fans and wanted to fully ignite their delightful response to his entertainment. He worked valiantly on behalf of his fans, “obsessed with perfection…rehears[ing] hour after hour, working till he gets a move or routine exactly right” (Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson, Vintage, 2006, p. 87). At least in the earlier years, it would be difficult to deny Jackson was, in essence, a “good” person.
Secondly, the hero must be “appropriate,” that is, in modern terms, fit the situation. Jackson was a member of the highest echelon of rock and theater stars—he befriended many including Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross, married the daughter of one in Lisa Marie Presley, and ensconced, then later distanced, himself vis-à-vis his famed family. He was every bit the star from boyhood to adulthood and, in fact, slid easily into the appropriateness of a celebrity until he violated social norms by some outrageous acts.
Third, the figure must be “like reality,” in other words, natural or organic, which do not quite fit Jackson outside of his musicianship. However, since he was not “like reality,” it was a natural that he built a myth in which to live. Since he did not have a childhood, he watched cartoons and befriended children. It was unsurprising that he obsessed over Peter Pan, extending the myth to a “friend,” if only a constructed one.
Fourth, the figure acts with consistency and is perceived as “whole.” Without fail, Jackson’s actions were two sides of a whole: extraordinary and eccentric, and he never veered from these two characteristics.
Aristotle’s Tragic Hero Model: Harmartia, Peripeteia, and Anagnorisis
Further analyzing his mythology, Jackson patterned Aristotle’s representation of a tragic hero fully. First, Aristotle describes harmartia as “a misfortune…brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment” (House, p. 93). In modern terms, harmartia is the tragic flaw commonly categorized under the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The last, also known as hubris, best fits Jackson in its definition: excessive pride shown in actions of extremity. He was enormously proud of his music, dance, and reputation, but most of all his ability to showcase his talent and thrill an audience.
Insofar that tragic figures exhibited pride, it is deemed a flaw if in excess, “a specific error which a man makes or commits” (House, p. 94). Jackson’s error, his hubris or his pride shield that he held at arm’s length, allowed him to behave behind it mysteriously and live the mythology rather than reality deemed too harsh for his sensitive, genius, misunderstood self. His shield hid the pain of loneliness and the difficult demands of his father and show business. Clearly, Joseph Jackson played a role in catapulting Michael into the myth. Joseph Campbell explains the archetype of a boy separating from his father common in mythology:
When a child…turns to face the world of specialized adult action, it passes spiritually, into the sphere of the father—who becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task…whether he knows it or not, and no matter what his position in society, the father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world… so now he… with this complication [understanding of good and evil]… is… the son against his father for the mastery of the universe (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 135-137).
As his manager, Joseph underscored Michael’s pride while feeding his own. He initiated his son into the music world, then later Michael turned away in an effort to gain control over his trajectory.
Harmatia, according to Aristotle, originates in “ignorance of some material fact or circumstance” (House, p. 94). By his own admission, Michael Jackson was a child in an adult’s body, thereby ignorant of ways to fully actualize as an adult and set appropriate boundaries with children. Instead, he became their peer (noted in his friendships with Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman). And his ignorance produced an outcome different from the norm. When young Michael Jackson sang and commanded the stage like a 30-year-old Motown veteran, who among us thought he would become a tragic figure?
Surely he did not aim at this goal, but he consciously chose to forestall his life in a childhood fantasyland that gave way to a fall. His pride motivated him to stay in this suspended reality. After all, he wrote in the song “Childhood” from HIStory (1995) that “no one understands me / They view it as such eccentricities… Its been my fate to compensate / For the childhood I’ve never known” (Mikal Gilmore, “Triumph and Tragedy”, Rolling Stone: Special Commemorative Issue, Michael Jackson: 1958-2009, 2009, p. 24). By mythologizing childhood, he willingly stepped back into a created one.
Jackson’s role model was ringmaster Phineas T. Barnum, a mythological figure himself. Similar to Barnum, Jackson loved to push the boundaries—Bubbles, hyperbaric oxygen chamber, elephant bones, and Neverland—at times even leaking these and other eccentrics to the public hotline. Charles Montgomery, a tabloid writer, said,
I realized that Michael Jackson liked to see himself portrayed in an absurd, bizarre way…I would do the biggest number of stories on Michael in the Enquirer. Before I ran anything, I would always check its accuracy with people closest to Michael. I almost always had full cooperation from his camp (Taraborrelli, p. 360).
At least Greek myths had some order and rationality to them, even if in a chaotic place. In his myth, Jackson departed from the order. The result? A step closer to the arc.
Harmartia is the catalyst for peripeteia, “a reversal of fortune, but more specifically, reversal of intention” (House, p. 96). His life transmuted from prosperity to misfortune. It was painful to watch Jackson’s face morph into a nearly unrecognizable visage, the child-molestation proceedings, the dangling of his youngest child over the balcony, and, as Berry Gordy, Jr. noted in his eulogy, “other questionable decisions.” We were puzzled at his exercises that seem to sever full rational thinking. He was now dancing in the myth more than the reality.
Edith Hamilton explains,
In the ancient [Greek] world, people were preoccupied with the visible…The sculptor watched the athletes contending in the games and he felt that nothing he could imagine would be would be as beautiful as those strong young bodies. So he made his statue of Apollo (Mythology, Little, Brown and Company, 1998, p. 8).
Modern sculptors—plastic surgeons and Jackson himself—altered his adult appearance, revealing his obsessive concern with image. At first heroic in his extreme pageantry, striking falsettos, and superhuman dance moves, his preoccupation turned too much on himself—a move toward the pitiable in his quest toward perfection.
Anagnorisis, according to Aristotle, is “the discovery, a change from ignorance to knowledge” (The Poetics, Heinemann LTD, 1939, p. 41). In modern terms, it’s learning the lesson by finally recognizing one’s shortcomings and the actions resulting therein. Unfortunately, Jackson never arrived at anagnorisis. His life stalled in peripeteia when charges against him were sordid and serious, and the seed of doubt was planted firmly in the public psyche. Only then did he seem to realize, but still not accept, his fall from public grace.
Hamartia, peripetia, and anagnorisis work together to form tragic plots of mythic proportions of which Jackson’s life was fitting. Encircling this model of tragedy is fate, which the Greeks referred to as “nemesis”. In modern times, we refer to this as “the enemy.” Relative to his personal nemesis, Jackson had an early instinct about his own death. After Jackson’s death, Lisa Marie Presley wrote in her online blog that she had spoken with Michael about her father’s death, quoting Jackson at the time: “I am afraid I am going to end up like him, the way he did” (”He Knew”, 26 June 2009). In addition, Michael Jackson apparently intuited his fate and feared his slide toward death would parallel Elvis Presley’s. Jackson had privately articulated his deepest fear: a tragedy, the unthinkable, would be realized.