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In My Veins I’ve Felt the Mystery

Willa:  One of the things I love most about the community that has developed here at the website is the wide range of perspectives different readers bring to the discussion – fans, artists, academics, and professionals from many different fields and many different cultural backgrounds, all sharing a love of Michael Jackson’s work as well as your insights into what made him and his work so important and so compelling. I love that fascinating mosaic of different perspectives, and I’ve learned so much over the past 18 months from the comments you all have shared.

This week Joie and I wanted to talk about Michael Jackson’s spirituality and how that’s reflected in his work. We’ve touched on this before – for example, in posts about “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” and Dancing the Dream last spring. However, this week we wanted to explore this idea in a more in-depth way. And fortunately, someone in our community has a lot of ideas to share about that!

Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us this week – she’s working on an exciting personal project. But I’m thrilled that Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor to the site, has agreed to step in. Eleanor worked with Costa Rica’s National Institute for Biodiversity in the early 1990s and, in her words, became “more and more concerned about the negative impact of our way of life on the rest of nature, and more and more puzzled as to why these concerns were not more widely shared when it was so obvious we were hurtling toward disaster.” She began to wonder if our religious beliefs played a role in shaping our attitudes toward nature, and she entered divinity school to explore that question. She received a Master’s degree in Theological Studies, and her graduate research focused on how notions of spiritual transcendence have shaped western culture’s relationship to nature. She is currently working on a book that addresses these issues – Beyond Transcendence: Seeking a Sustainable Relationship with Nature.

Importantly, Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as embodying a very different spiritual model – one of immanence rather than transcendence – that might lead us to see our relationship with nature in a different way. I am so intrigued by that! Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa.  Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your ongoing discussions about Michael Jackson, his life and his art. In addition to providing your visitors with interesting insights and information, your blog has created a warm and caring community, an expression of MJ’s L.O.V.E. – which I am grateful to be a part of.

Willa:  I’m very grateful for that community also, and think it’s a real testament to the power of Michael Jackson’s work – especially that his work is meaningful to people from such diverse backgrounds. For example, your appreciation of Michael Jackson seems to be strongly influenced by your knowledge of theology, which I know very little about. That’s one reason I’m especially eager to hear your ideas!

So before we talk about how you situate Michael Jackson’s spirituality in terms of these two models, I was wondering if we could start by clarifying what exactly you mean by transcendence and immanence. How would you describe these two models?  How are they different, and why is that difference important?

Eleanor:  Before I address your question concerning immanence and transcendence, I have to say that I have a little trouble talking about Michael Jackson’s spirituality as the term “spirituality” is becoming a foreign concept to me, and MJ is the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual – much less as having a “spirituality.”

Willa:  Really?  Wow, I’m surprised!  Why do you say that, Eleanor?  I’m wondering if maybe I didn’t express myself well, or didn’t ask the question the right way.

Eleanor:  No, no. It’s not that. My reaction relates to my own idiosyncratic problems with the concept of transcendence and how it relates to the idea of spirituality. But, in no way am I “dissing” MJ. As anyone who has been reading my comments knows, I am one of MJ’s biggest admirers.

Willa:  Yes, I know – that’s one reason I’m so confused right now.

Eleanor:  Understandably. Because most people associate being a spiritual person with being a good person and MJ was demonstrably a very good person as well as a great artist. That being said, I admire MJ because of his “embodiment” – his materiality – rather than his spirituality. And, I think, by addressing your question and clarifying what I mean by transcendence (another word with very positive cultural associations) and contrasting it to immanence, I can also explain my problems with associating spirituality with Michael Jackson.

When I use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent,” I use them as descriptors for a worldview and value system. A transcendent worldview and value system divides spirit from matter and locates the sacred or ultimate value outside the material world, in spirit, draining nature and the earth of value, which is why, with my environmental concerns, I have come to view transcendence as sinister and the term “spirit” with suspicion.

Analyzing western culture in terms of transcendence provides an explanation as to why we, as a culture, have adopted such an exploitative attitude toward nature and the material world.  And, “transcendent exploitation” doesn’t stop with nature.  Along the same lines, we also think of mind as properly separate from the body, and we assign value to the mind, rather than the body.

Willa:  That’s true, Eleanor. It reminds me of something Thomas Edison once said. He was a notorious workaholic who spent long hours every day in the lab, and a reporter once asked him what he did for exercise. Edison replied that the only thing he used his body for was to carry his mind from place to place.

Eleanor:  Exactly! I’ve never heard that, but it fits perfectly.

Willa:  It really highlights the mind/body split, doesn’t it? And I think a lot of people share that idea – not only that the mind and body are separate, but that the mind is what’s important, and the body is just an imperfect vessel for holding and transporting the mind.

Eleanor:   Right. With an emphasis on imperfect! And they privilege those things and people associated with the mind over those associated with the body and nature. For example, they/we view reason as separate from and superior to emotion, and humanity (homo sapiens, the wise species) as separate from and superior to (a mindless) nature. By extension, any association with physicality, with the body, with nature – with matter – results in the devaluation of specific types of people and specific types of work.

Willa:  I agree, which is one reason women, racial minorities, and lower class workers have historically been devalued, to use your term – because historically they’ve been associated with physical labor, especially labor that involves daily care for the body, things like cooking and feeding the body, making clothes and keeping the body warm and clean, nursing the body and tending to its wounds and disabilities, changing diapers and caring for the bodies of children or the elderly or the infirm. Those people in a more privileged position – generally meaning upper class, white, and male – have historically been associated with the life of the mind, and with work that is as far removed as possible from actual human bodies.

Eleanor:  I know. So frustrating and so unfair. Because when you really think about it, this work is some of the most valuable on the planet; it is critical to survival. So, from my point of view transcendence is hazardous to the health of the planet and all its inhabitants. Which is why I am wary of using the term “spirit,” as it seems to reinforce the idea of a binary reality in which nature and those associated with nature and the body are devoid of value.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Eleanor. And I’m starting to see the problem with my question, and why you said Michael Jackson was “the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual,” though that still kind of shocks me.

Eleanor:  Well, naturally, it is shocking. It goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to believe in and value. But I think MJ in his life and art, epitomizes and personifies and promotes the immanent worldview – which is why his work is so shocking, so electrifying! He is truly radical. He radically changes our perception of reality. As an artist and as a person, he embodies a new worldview and value system: he, himself, is the materialization of a sacred energy. He is “the Avatar of Immanence.” He is “His Immanence” Michael Jackson.

Willa:  As opposed to His Eminence, the Cardinal of New York or Chicago, where “eminence” emphasizes that these figures are separate from us and above us. That’s a wonderful title, Eleanor, and I love this view of Michael Jackson as integrating mind and body, and restoring value to the material, natural, physical world.

Eleanor:  Well, I am pretty attached to it myself. And, as was pointed out in the discussion of MJ’s crotch grabs in “That Ain’t What It’s All About,” we can also add the integration of sexuality into what it means to be fully human, as opposed to looking on sexuality as an indicator of some sort of human failing. It is this perfect integration, his immanence, that gives his work so much authenticity, which gives his art its incredible emotional power, which distinguishes him from all other dancers on a stage.

In contrast to transcendence, immanence refers to a worldview which finds the sacred and value within matter. In an immanent reality, the term “spirit” has no meaning, because value and the sacred are now understood as being part and parcel of matter, specifically of nature and the body. There is no line dividing mind from body, reason from emotion, humanity from nature, no value system that automatically assigns value to humans over nature or whites over blacks or men over women or mental professions over physical labor. Immanence knocks the legs out from under racism and sexism – and the assumption that humans have the right to exploit nature.

To me, in everything he was and did, MJ represents this worldview, this new truth. And, it is the truth of his work which gives it so much beauty. For the first time in my life, watching Michael Jackson, I understood what Keats meant when he said,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Willa:  Or when Emily Dickinson wrote, “I died for beauty,” and the person in the adjoining tomb responds,

“And I for truth – the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

Eleanor:  Yes. Exactly. And, his beautiful truth, his true beauty, is an expression of deep and true emotions, bravely revealed in his music, his dance, his art. He gives a true assessment of the world we live in and its imbalance and shows us the way to restore the balance which our world – and worldview – has lost: he puts value back in matter and nature and the body and women and people of color and everything and everybody our culture has stripped of value. And, as has been noted on this blog, he paid a high price for his steadfastness.

Willa:  Yes, he did.

Eleanor:  For me, Earth Song says it all. It is so amazing. The night after he died, as I you-tubed one MJ video after another, I discovered Earth Song. I was stunned. In this one work, he expressed what I had been trying to say for years …. and much more. For me, it is the most radical of all his works for it is nothing less than an indictment of the transcendent worldview and value system.

In a few deft phrases, he sketches the outlines of our global tragedy, expressing deep sorrow for the damage we ourselves are doing to the earth – a sorrow mixed with a compassion for a people who have only recently become conscious of the consequences of their own self-destructive actions, actions which somehow seem to be beyond their control to do anything about. And, as in so much of his work, there is the mixture of heart-broken sadness and anguished anger. In the complexity of its lyrics and music, it conveys a deep sense of betrayal that is very personal.

In Earth Song, MJ addresses none other than the conventional Judea-Christian God – transcendent spirit itself – the “you” who betrayed his only son, who (almost) betrayed Abraham, and whose worldview/ value system  is betraying us. He calls on the transcendent god to acknowledge the mess the world is in – the mess a transcendent worldview and value system are largely responsible for.

What about sunrise?
What about rain?
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain?
What about killing fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before?
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?
What have we done to the world?
Look what we’ve done.
What about all the peace
That you pledged your only son?
What about flowering fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the dreams
That you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve always interpreted these lines rather differently – not as questions directed toward God, the Christian God, but as questions directed toward us and our ancestors. After all, our ancestors are the ones who developed and passed on the worldview that nature is simply something to be exploited to satisfy our own wants. They created the industrial revolution. They clear-cut forests. They hunted animals to extinction. In other words, they gave us the very destructive legacy that we are fulfilling today.

But listening to those lyrics you just cited with your ideas in mind, one line really jumped out at me:  “What about all the peace / That you pledged your only son?” That really does suggest that he is addressing God – specifically, God the Father – doesn’t it?

Eleanor:  Well, the first time I heard it, it did to me (and still does). And really knocked me out. At last, someone else, Michael Jackson, no less, seemed to “get it.” And seemed to understand and express all the complex emotions I felt. IN ONE SONG. For so many years, I believed in transcendence … and then suddenly one day I didn’t. And my overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. I saw that in trying to be a good person and do the right thing, I was actually acting against the best interests of the planet and of myself as a woman – and society at large. And, at that moment I also lost whatever faith I had left in the JC God, because to me, as a symbol and a character in a book, the JC God represented that which no longer worked for the well-being of all. It was both a terrible and a liberating moment. I went to divinity school, in part, to see if I was correct in my assessment or, if not, if I could salvage some vestiges of my Christian faith, but, no one ever was able “to reconcile the ways of God” to nature or woman – or me. And, I came out more convinced than ever that I was on the right track (but I went to a very liberal divinity school).

To me, Earth Song is both a lament and an accusation. Michael Jackson’s lament is not only for what we are inflicting on nature, but for what we are doing to each other and what those in power are doing to the less empowered.

Hey, what about yesterday?
(What about us?)
What about the seas?
(What about us?)
The heavens are falling down
(What about us?)
I can’t even breathe
(What about us?)
What about apathy?
(What about us?)
I need you
(What about us?)
What about nature’s worth?
It’s our planet’s womb
(What about us?)
What about animals?
(What about it?)
We’ve turned kingdoms to dust
(What about us?)
What about elephants?
(What about us?)
Have we lost their trust?
(What about us?)
What about crying whales?
(What about us?)
We’re ravaging the seas
(What about us?)
What about forest trails
Burnt despite our pleas?
(What about us?)
What about the holy land
(What about it?)
Torn apart by creed?
(What about us?)
What about the common man?
(What about us?)
Can’t we set him free?….

By so tightly weaving his concerns for earth, nature, and humanity into a single thread – the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars on nature and each other – he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed.

And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed.

Willa:  I agree – he’s forcing us to acknowledge their concerns and asking us to care about those concerns. In other words, he’s giving voice to the voiceless – “the disempowered and dispossessed,” to borrow your words – including animals as well as oppressed people. And again I’m struck by the references to Abraham (“What about Abraham?”) and “the holy land / Torn apart by creed,” which support your interpretation.

The reference to Abraham is especially interesting since, as I remember the story, God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac – in other words, he asks him to choose between his physical, material, embodied son and a spiritual, disembodied God. Abraham chooses the spiritual over the physical and builds an altar for killing his son, though God stays his hand at the last minute. Abraham has proven himself – he made the right choice – so God allows his son to live. I can see how the story of Abraham would be very troubling to Michael Jackson on many different levels, and it ties in very closely with your interpretation of “Earth Song.”

Eleanor:  Yes. I think the story of Abraham is difficult for many people to live with – especially MJ.

Although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the earth and nature back to life.  I love watching this, because, truly, I believe his music, his art, his very being reveal and express a new way of looking at things – a new worldview and value system – that can accomplish just that. If we let nature speak to us, if we can open our hearts, I think she will show us the way, for I believe, deep within every human, nature has planted a drive which drives us toward collective survival, and when a way of life is operating against our survival, we will instinctively react and seek to right our course.

Willa:  I love that section of Earth Song also, and that’s a wonderful way to describe it, Eleanor – he truly is “singing the earth and nature back to life.” I think it’s especially important that this section undoes the destruction we witnessed in the first half of the video – the cut tree rights itself and once again becomes part of the forest canopy, the elephant regrows her tusks and comes back to life, the dead civilian opens his eyes. And something very specific seems to bring about the shift between the destruction we witness in the first half and the healing and reawakening we see in the second half – it’s all the people pushing their hands down into the dirt, reconnecting themselves with the physicality of the earth.

Eleanor:  I had forgotten that bit. So perfect. So significant. No doubt about it, he was a genius.

This new way of seeing things is clearly set forth in “Planet Earth,” which comes from a different emotional place altogether, but addresses the same issues. Michael Jackson references the traditional western philosophical view of matter (a view of nature refined and espoused by Enlightenment thinkers) when he asks if the earth, the material world is

a cloud of dust
A minor globe, about to bust
A piece of metal bound to rust
A speck of matter in a mindless void
A lonely spaceship, a large asteroid

Cold as a rock without a hue
Held together with a bit of glue

and simply and directly refutes it:  “Something tells me this isn’t true.”

In “Planet Earth,” MJ celebrates earth’s innate value and claims his own, deep connection and oneness with the earth, and his debt to nature. Contrary to traditional belief, the human race Michael Jackson belongs to is not separate from and superior to nature, but an integral part of nature. I really love the following lines:

In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form  … 

And, he establishes and models a new relationship to nature – that of the lover to the beloved, rather than the owner to the owned or the master to the slave. In “Planet Earth,” Michael Jackson loves and cherishes the earth.

Do you care, have you a part
In the deepest emotions of my own heart
Tender with breezes caressing and whole
Alive with music, haunting my soul.
Planet Earth, gentle and blue
With all my heart, I love you.

Willa:  I love those lines also, and you’re right – he entirely reframes our relationship with nature and the material world. I see that throughout Dancing the Dream, where he repeatedly locates the spiritual within the material, and finds a sense of wonder and enlightenment within the physical world, not above it. (And I’m sorry about that word “spiritual” – I can’t seem to avoid it!) Even the preface suggests this idea:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished, I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge in one wholeness of joy.

I keep on dancing and dancing … and dancing, until there is only … the dance.

I’m especially struck by the line, “On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred.” Reading those lines in terms of what you’ve been saying, Eleanor, it seems significant that he connects a heightened spirituality, the “sacred,” with a heightened physicality, with “dancing.” The sacred isn’t something that transcends the physical body, but something he accesses through the physical body.

Eleanor:  Yes, that is a theme he comes back to a lot. And, thanks for bringing this quote to my attention. As a relatively new fan of MJ’s, I’m afraid I still have a way to go in my Michael Jackson studies – but again, it fits so perfectly and reinforces my belief that he was very “consciously” trying to create a radically new way of looking at the world. … I love his saying that consciousness is within creation, in other words that matter has mind. Every time I look out my window or go for a walk, I wonder how anyone could ever doubt it – with each leaf knowing exactly how to position itself to get the most sun, with the roots of trees heading directly for my septic system for water, with my geese – not so silly – carefully teaching the goslings to swim and walking in a protective phalanx around them, my mare knowing so perfectly how to mother (how I wish my own mother had known as much) watching over her foal, high-tailing it and kicking up her heels in the sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel part of all this life – this energy – this consciousness within nature – not separate from the “one wholeness of joy.”

Willa:  I agree. He creates a longing in his work to participate in “the eternal dance of creation” that we can see all around us, once we look at nature with deep appreciation for what it is and not just for how we can use it – for example, to appreciate a meadow or a forest for the wonder that they are and not just as a potential homesite or lumber to be exploited.

I’m also struck by the lines in the preface where he once again subverts all these hierarchical relationships – “the victor and the vanquished,” “the master and the slave,” “the knower and the known” – and connects the sacred with the lower sphere as well as the upper.

Eleanor:  Yes, I guess it’s more surprising to me that he includes the “upper.” (Note how even our mental imagery is affected by the transcendent worldview.) In writing about Earth Song, I was reminded again that he seems not to blame those “on top” for the problems the world faces, but the system itself. We are all caught up in this system. And transcendence drives us all to rise to the top and seize control. By its very “nature,” it creates hierarchical relationships, so it is MJ’s goal to subvert them. And, he is not just subverting relationships, but the energy that drives us to create these relationships – the drive that energizes our culture. He wants to align the energy that drives human societies with the energy that drives nature. And, he himself is an example of someone really connected, really plugged in. I think it is this energy that he calls L.O.V.E. In the new global village, we can no longer afford to work against each other; survival depends on working for the well-being of all. And ALL means all life, not just human life (excluding mosquitoes and fire ants, of course).

Willa:  Though I have a feeling he would include mosquitoes and fire ants as well! He sang a beautiful song about a rat, after all – it’s one of my favorite songs.

Thank you again for joining me, Eleanor. It’s been so interesting! You’ve really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about these ideas of body, mind, and spirit (that problematic word again, “spirit”). Now I’m wanting to watch Earth Song and read Dancing the Dream again with these thoughts in mind, and I love that. I love it when someone gives me a new path for entering into a work and seeing it in a different way. Thank you, Eleanor.