Peter Pan, Existentialist Fairy Tale?

“To die would be an awfully big adventure” crows Peter Pan, the cocky paragon of eternal youthfulness and fairytale flights.

Peter Pan has become one of the most recognizable fictional characters since he first appeared in a section of J.M. Barrie’s book The Little White Bird in 1902 and later took center stage in the December 1904 London premiere play of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. He has been featured in at least 8 major motion pictures, most notably the 1953 Disney animated classic voiced by Bobby Driscoll, the 2003 live-action version starring Jeremy Sumpter, and most recently, the 2015 experimental origins story, Pan, played by Levi Miller. J.M. Barrie’s starchild has spawned two award-winning Broadway musicals and been immortalized in countless books.

Peter, the boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees,” is a brash, carefree rogue who leads a band of lost boys occupying an island on a distant star called Neverland, “first star to the right, and straight on til morning.” He is known for his flying abilities, sword-fighting savvy against arch-nemesis, Captain Hook. For children who have died, he is said to accompany them partway to their destination so that they will not be frightened. Infinite youth is his defining characteristic and he abhors all things grown-up.

He encounters the Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, while lingering outside their nursery window, listening to Wendy’s stories. Wendy discovers him during his attempt to collect his shadow which was separated from his body the night before. He recovers his shadow, and with the help of magical dust, taken from his fairy companion, Tinkerbell, Peter lures the children onto an adventure in Neverland among oafish pirates, vindictive mermaids, ruffian lost boys, and 19th century-stereotyped Native Americans. The story also includes an occasional appearance from a massive crocodile who has developed a particular taste for Captain Hook, a one-handed pirate. The croc projects a constant ticking sound from previously swallowing a clock, no doubt symbolic of the way in which time is after each of us. The children defeat Hook who is eventually devoured by the croc. The Darling children, along with the lost boys, return home welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Darling’s warm embraces. The lost boys are immediately adopted, choosing a life of love and family, trading in Neverland’s endless possibilities for a life that includes growing up and ultimately dying. Peter determines to continue his freewheeling adventures and “ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know,” separated from the life his former playmates have now chosen. He remains the unaging youth who visits future generations of children, taking them with him from time to time on new perils.

“For children who have died, he is said to accompany them partway to their destination so that they will not be frightened. Infinite youth is his defining characteristic and he abhors all things grown-up.”

Historians argue that J.M. Barrie created the Peter Pan stories to help others cope with death. On the one hand, he was inspired by his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her boys. Barrie befriended Davies, a widow, during her battle with cancer which would soon take her life. He became a co-guardian of the boys and largely raised them as his own. He was married but never fathered any children. On the other hand, the death of his older brother, David, at a young age and the subsequent grief experienced by his mother, contributed to Peter Pan’s creation. Barrie wanted to provide her some comfort surrounding the loss of David.

Death features prominently in the Peter Pan story. He is the embodied rejection of death and adulthood. “Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you’ll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.” Themes of freedom and choice abound. Pirate or lost boy? Neverland or London? Endless youth or growing up? Isolation bookends the story. Peter appears at the window alone, albeit with an ever faithful fairy friend toward whom he shows a shallow connection, and the story ends with him alone, staring in at the “loveliest of sights” which he is “forever barred.” The Neverland saga even contains allusions to an existence divorce of a higher meaning, despite some of the more hopeful elements Barrie injects into the milieu. Fairies may have been born “when the first baby laughed for the first time,” and “its laugh broke into a thousand pieces,” which became fairies, but Peter connects to no larger ethos. “I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?” he asks Wendy. Mr. Darling works a passionless job as a clerk, imprisoned by the roles and values society has set for him, but remains unwilling to do anything about it. In fact, he is seen obsessing over numbers and accounts, talking to himself in a nonsensical manner, exhibiting the absurdity of his life.

Existentialists have been dismissed by rationalists, logical positivists, and empiricists who scoff at the philosophy’s embrace of disorder and subordination of objective reality to subjective experience. They see few solutions and a hyper-individualism which affronts our shared morality. Critics portray it as a philosophy for the discontented, the cynic, the bourgeois intellectual, or the passive observer of life.

“Death features prominently in the Peter Pan story. He is the embodied rejection of death and adulthood.”

What does a joyful, nostalgia-inducing fairytale have in common with a seemingly gloomy philosophy? Everything. Existentialist and nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asserted–nihilism, a sister philosophy to existentialism–that his philosophy was life-affirming, one of action: “Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all, and on the whole: someday I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” He famously proclaimed “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him,” designating western civilization’s values worthless since their originator, God, is no more. Without Him, they have no anchor, no worth. Thus, we are left to navigate an unintentional and chaotic world with two options; we can become passive and consign ourselves to the futility of existence, or we can activate ourselves, becoming “yes-sayers!” We are freed from the chains of tradition, free to create the world in our own images.  

Existentialism, for some, offers a life-affirming philosophy, and its message can be found all over the pages, stages, and screens where we encounter the boy who refused to grow up. Irvin Yalom, existential psychotherapist and award-winning author of When Nietzsche Wept and Love’s Executioner, identified 4 givens of existence: “the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.” We are thrown into existence, into a chaotic and meaningless world. Then we are greeted by death.

“We are freed from the chains of tradition, free to create the world in our own images.”

The Inevitability of Death
Each of us will die, as will our loved ones. From childhood we develop clever ways to stave off death, to avoid thinking about its terrifying consequences. We use our active imaginations to dream up monsters which can attract our fears rather than the more frightening reality of death. Into adulthood we embrace “secular and religious myths,” says Yalom, in a similar fashion. Peter’s existence is a testament to that. We console ourselves with peaceful ideas of passing onto the next world, some place where we find happy reunion. We all know about death, but that is usually on an abstract level. We divide ourselves from the full force of its weight. We know we’re going to die but rarely do we feel the thrust of it, the impermanence of existence. We distract ourselves, detach, or bury the death anxiety only to have it insert itself into our nightmares or into the quiet daytime moments when we worry whether a loved one will return safely from a trip abroad or if we will come to the end of our lives having lived a good life.

Death will inevitably destroy each of us, but the idea of death has a power to save. Therein lies Existentialism’s energy. In Mitch Albom’s best-selling memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie, retired sociology professor Morrie Schwartz imparts truisms in weekly meetings with Mitch, a gone-astray writer and former student. Morrie is presented as a figure who has discovered the good life. Staring at his impending death from cancer, each nugget of wisdom is mined from one adage: “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Death provides perspective. Most of us have no more than a couple events where we have to face our own mortality, like a nearly fatal car accident or a major illness. Therapists recreate these experiences by asking their clients to live a short period of time as if they have a known date with death. These often range from 2-3 weeks. This intense focus on death reveals our priorities, bringing to the surface what we believe to be most meaningful.

The Freedom to Create Our Lives
Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “We are condemned to be free.” Although we commonly use freedom in a liberating sense, here it contains the burden of responsibility. In a world devoid of greater meaning, we are left to design our lives, make choices, and bear complete authorship for the consequences that follow. It is difficult to become an adult and put away childhood fantasies. This opportunity presented itself to Peter at the end of the tale. Mrs. Darling adopts all the lost boys but when she offers to adopt Peter, he declaims “I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things… I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!”

The newness of a choice brings the hope of possibility. Every decision also carries a certain degree of melancholy. This is captured by the only meaningful choice Peter makes during the Neverland epic: to stay a lost boy forever. Having made his choice he hesitates outside the Darling nursery before returning to Neverland.

There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.

Just as the lost boys who have chosen adoption by the Darlings will never know the joys Peter will soon encounter, he will never know the loveliest of experiences they have now chosen. Yalom puts it differently: “Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).”

Decisions can be torturous but bearing responsibility for them should empower us. Yalom reminds us that “as long as one believes that one’s problems are caused by some force or agency outside oneself, there is no leverage. Freedom not only requires us to bear responsibility for our choices but also posits that change requires an act of will.” There is a world of difference in how one acts if she believes she’s untalented because she grew up in a mediocre family versus the woman who accepts responsibility for not putting forth the effort necessary to develop those talents.

Alienation
We are alienated by an unbridgeable gap between ourselves and everything other, loved ones and strangers alike. We experience life in a unique way, our feelings and perceptions never exactly overlapping with those of another person. We orbit around each other, but can never fully align. When the Darling children reach Neverland, they encounter a world which adjusts according to their subjective experiences. The narrator informs us that:

of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth.

Absolute connection would require another person to have all the same experiences, feelings, and evaluations of our life. In other words, they would have to be identical to us. Someone who lost their father as a child can relate to another who has lost a parent, but their subjective experiences diverge. A gap exists. For one it could have been a tragic event and for the other, a release from an abusive parent. A soccer enthusiast can connect with a fellow sports fan, but a space will remain. One may watch sports because she admires the high level of technical expertise while the other enjoys a social activity in which she is not required to talk much. They are two separate and distinct people, and never the twain shall meet. It is common practice during performances of the play for Peter to not physically touch another character. He alters the lives of the others significantly, but not once does he bridge the gap of isolation.

Existentialists would argue that the solution to this given of existence remains elusive, though some solace can be found in having a name for that absence which can’t quite be filled by any relationship. Unfortunately, the more self-awareness we have, the more our anxiety and sense of alienation expand. It’s no mere coincidence artists and writers, those most inclined toward introspection, are so prone to bouts of loneliness. Many western religions suggest we should lose ourselves in the lives of others through varying forms of charity. In the New Testament, Jesus exhorts his people to serve others “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” It’s hard to think about your own anxieties when you’re so focused on those of another. This losing of oneself can also take the form of a parent whose life is consumed by her children. Yalom refers to this “softening of one’s boundaries, the melting into another” as fusion, which he cautions against, for he sees it as a cowardly attempt to avoid the self.

Many eastern philosophies counter the challenges loneliness by denying the self completely. Zen Buddhism asserts that the self is an illusion, that the ego must be killed. The individual is not her thoughts, emotions, or feelings. She is existence. She just is. The more she attempts to grasp for the ego, the more she gets stuck, like somebody trying to breathe by holding her breath. Alan Watts, in the Way of Zen championed this eastern approach to the emptiness:

This is why the Hindu-Buddhist insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.

Existentialism may offer little solace to this existence pain, but as one of Yalom’s patients said, “Even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”

Meaning-seeking Creatures in a Meaningless Existence
Yalom states that “the search for meaning must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity; the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it.” Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning similarly claims that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” The Darling children’s trip to Neverland is a direct pursuit of happiness for that’s what the magicland represents: an island of lotus-eaters. While playing “house” in the lost boys hideout, they begin to forget who their real parents are until Wendy snaps them out of their hazy state. The greater purpose they return to in the end is family and love. In one of the more triumphant moments of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 adaptation, Hook, a grown up Peter remembers that becoming a father was his happy thought, thus regaining the abilities he needs to save his children from Captain Hook: “You can fly! You can fight! And you can crow…[Peter proudly crows]” Notably, Frankl differs here with Yalom on the point of fusion. In fact, he advocates some degree of fusion or tempering of the activity which increases the alienation sensation: introspection.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and comparative religion, and author of The Power of Myth oft repeated:

people say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

When we’re living presently, lost in the moment or in flow, we have no interest in uncovering meaning in the world. We’re living it.

Meaning is sensorial. A beloved friend doesn’t matter to us because she matches a platonic ideal, she matters because when we see her, we feel a swell in our chest, a lightness of body or a smile steals across our face. Loving somebody isn’t meaningful because an ancient writ tells us it is good or because love is an Aristotelian virtue or because the universe intends for us to love each other. Love is meaningful because it manifests in our bodies. The anxious anticipation we feel in our sweaty palms or speeding heart rate tells us something is about to happen. The closeness of a loved one’s body or emotional vulnerability resonates on some deeper level, so we love them. The rationalizations and explanations for why someone or something is meaningful come after the fact. They are secondary, our attempt to make a chaotic world appear orderly. We feel alive, and when the moment has passed, we reach for language which tell us, it matters. It really matters. This perspective doesn’t belittle or demean the significance of loving somebody, but takes the meaning from some distant objective reality and places it squarely in the subjective realm: I love somebody and that’s meaningful because it matters to me.  

In a disinterested universe, we have one major imperative: create. We must create our personal universe. As Rollo May put it in The Courage to Create,

we are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize… courage is not the absence of despair, it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.

Peter Pan’s Existentialist Warning
In the end, Peter rejects the existentialist credo. He turns away, refusing to embrace love and all the responsibilities of adulthood. He makes occasional returns to the window, disappointed to find his former friends grown up, replaced by their own children. He is the anti-hero in a story of his own namesake, remaining unchanged throughout the entire story arc. The Darling children are the ones who take the hero’s journey, accepting the call of adventure to an unknown world to then return home, changed. He instead avoids the givens of existence and remains in Neverland, a place which can and never will exist. He is the ghost of eternities we will never know.

We can choose the creative life or surrender ourselves to a world with no obvious purpose. We can affirm our personal freedom or let circumstances dictate our lives to us . We can determine what our lives mean to us or we can relinquish that responsibility to traditional institutions and authorities, let society do the work for us.  

In the play, the unseen and unnamed narrator ponders what might have happened had Peter chosen to stay with Wendy. What might happen if we took total responsibility for our lives? What might happen if we took on the existentialist challenge placed before us?

We could change Peter’s original cry into one around which we can rally: “to live would be an awfully big adventure!”

(Image source: Disney)

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