A partial defense of Peter Pan - inspired by a current bestseller
Will the cautionary tales from pop psychologists never cease? Just the other day, it seems, we were all talking about ''The Cinderella Complex,'' warning our friends against the perilous habit of believing in Prince Charming.Skip to next paragraph
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Now Dan Kiley, a ''media psychologist'' operating out of Chicago, has written a new best seller, ''The Peter Pan Syndrome,'' posting red-alert signs against - to quote the subtitle - ''Men Who Have Never Grown Up.'' Since that somehow seems to include just about everybody but Dr. Kiley, we're inclined to stamp our Buster Brown shoes, slam down our Tootsie Pop, and take the whole matter personally.
Dr. Kiley means well. We have no doubt of that. In fact, he may be the kindliest media psychologist since Joyce Brothers. What we do doubt is that Dr. Dan (as he prefers to call himself) has given Sir James Barrie's play the close analysis it deserves. If he had, he would have discovered, as the drama critic Kenneth Tynan did, that Peter Pan is a thoroughly British conception. ''The classic all-round English urchin,'' Tynan dubbed the little chap, adding that he suffered from a ''disquieting case of nanny-worship.''
If Dr. Dan can show us one American man afflicted with ''nanny worship,'' we will turn in our Captain Hook Halloween costume.
But we don't want to quibble. Would that be mature? It's just that we're not satisfied that the ''Peter Pan syndrome'' pins down the problem.
Dr. Dan complains that Peter Pans are ''usually single'' when they're under 25. But aren't most men?
These under-25-year-olds are also ''nagged by the thought that they haven't found the 'right' job.'' This, too, seems to amaze and vex Dr. Dan. But has he checked out the general run of ''entry level'' jobs available to men under 25? Even an English urchin might feel ready to move on.
We're not totally persuaded either by Dr. Dan's stern approach to the ''PPS victims,'' as he describes them: ''I wish to confront you about . . .'' or ''My request is that you. . . .'' Such highly recommended overtures would get him nowhere with us, if (we say if) we happened to be a Peter Pan.
Esquire has picked up on the catch phrase in an article by David Hellerstein, offering more than a hint that we should ''pity the woman who falls in love with a Peter Pan.''
Now if Hellerstein and Dr. Dan are defining Peter Pan as a man who is evading his ''commitments'' to other people - especially women - why don't they say so? Then we can all nod our heads in total agreement and go home to nanny. But the issue of personal responsibility becomes secondary when Dr. Dan starts emphasizing Peter Pan's ''very shaky work history,'' and it positively disappears when Hellerstein submits his cardinal test of what it means to be a grown-up: ''To work on a dreary, rainy morning when work is boring and one has to kick oneself into it.''
Are we wrong to feel that we've read more inspiring definitions of the state of being an adult?
Still, the cat's out of the bag, and we now know what Peter Panning is mostly about: poor work habits. Once the throat-clearing vagaries are over, we're back with Aesop and those ants vs. those grasshoppers.
This leads us finally to turn to another drama critic, Max Beerbohm, who, in commenting on the first production of ''Peter Pan'' almost 79 years ago, wrote: ''The first of all the differences between a child's mind and an adult's is the vividness and abundance of a child's fancy. . . . As a child grows into boyhood, this delicate faculty is dimmed. Manhood, in most cases, destroys it utterly.''
If we understand Max - and we think we understand him better than we understand pop psychologists - he is suggesting that there's a ''good'' Peter Pan as well as a ''bad'' Peter Pan, and we ought not to throw out Barrie's baby with the bath.
Friedrich Schiller - to take additional expert testimony - once said that a human being only plays when, in the full meaning of the word, he or she is human; and furthermore, he or she is only fully human when playing.
German poets have been known to overstate. But as an ideal of adulthood, Schiller's approach sure beats kicking oneself to perform boring work on a rainy morning.