How on earth can we understand the news, reported this week in The Sun, that at least a dozen Michael Jackson fans have committed suicide since his death? It’s easy to scoff, it’s easy to point to past histories of mental illness. But neither of these responses really get at the sorrow of these grieving fans. Perhaps the best means of comprehending the Michael Jackson suicides—and his legacy in general—is through the lens of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which itself inspired a wave of suicides across Europe.
What does the King of Pop have in common with the main character of an 18th century German novel? Quite a lot, in fact. Jackson redefined fame and life in the public eye; while Werther was one of the most influential fictional characters in literary history. Goethe’s book spawned an international spectacle unlike anything seen previously. All over Europe, young men and women were struck with “Werther fever.” They wore his trademark blue tail coat and yellow vest, they used eau de Werther, and they committed suicide with the book clutched in their hands. In the words of Theodore Sarbin: “Werther, a fictional character in a novel, had been transfigured to become a model for living and dying.” The popularity of Werther can be attributed to a number of factors, but the most important was his sentimental view of the world. Take for example, Werther’s letter to his friend Wilhelm:
When I pass through the same gate, and walk along the same road which first conducted me to Charlotte, my heart sinks within me at the change that has since taken place. All, all, is altered! No sentiment, no pulsation of my heart, is the same. My sensations are such as would occur to some departed prince whose spirit should return to visit the superb palace which he had built in happy times, adorned with costly magnificence, and left to a beloved son, but whose glory he should find departed, and its halls deserted and in ruins.
This excessive sensitivity, the feeling that the world is just too much too bear, is an essential component of Michael Jackson’s lyrics as well. Compare Werther’s letter to the lyrics of the Michael Jackson song “Childhood,” which he wrote and composed himself:
I’m searching for the world that I
‘Cause I’ve been looking around
In the lost and found of my heart…
No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
Unlike Werther, Jackson’s sentimentality extended outwards also, encompassing the sum total of suffering in the world. This universal empathy is evident in the lyrics of “Earth Song,” which Jackson also wrote and composed himself.
What have we done to the world
Look what we’ve done
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth, the weeping shores?
While it is hard to imagine taking one’s life over the death of a pop star, Michael Jackson clearly meant a great deal to a great many people. Comparing his fans to the fans of Werther might help us better understand his legacy in general, and what he meant to those who were compelled by his death to take their own lives. As Goethe wrote in his preface to The Sorrows of Young Werther: “Thou, good soul, who sufferest the same distress as he endured once, draw comfort from his sorrows; and let this little book be thy friend, if, owing to fortune or through thine own fault, thou canst not find a dearer companion.”