Fountains of Youth
People have long blundered after eternal youthfulness, inspired by vanity as well as timeless legends such as the Fountain of Youth, a spring that reputedly restores the vitality of anyone who bathes in it. But after centuries of fruitless searching, the only thing that hasn’t gotten old is the quest. Taking us under the surgeon’s knife and deep into the ocean, this map chronicles both our pursuit and the consequences of clinging to youth.
Juan Ponce de León made a splash in 1513, when he accidentally discovered Florida on a voyage in search of the Fountain of Youth, a mythical restorative spring on the Bimini Islands (now part of the Bahamas). Although unable to find the elusive fountain, Ponce de León’s expedition brought the centuries-old legend into the New World. Today a statue of the explorer stands in Florida above the sulfuric waters of “Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park” as a monument to the quest for immortality.
Florida is still attracting attention for its connections to immortality. Swimming off its shores is the hydrozoa species Turritopsis dohrnii—a.k.a. the immortal jellyfish—which can delay its death by reverting to the polyp stage, essentially aging backward, over and over. Some scientists believe the creatures hold genetic secrets to eternal youth; others disagree. In the scientific paper “Reversing the Life Cycle” (1996), biologists Stefano Piraino, et al., claim the hydrozoa’s seemingly magical ability is simply another way of reproducing, albeit an odd one. Apparently, the term immortality rings true only in legends and fairy tales.
Juan Ponce de León reportedly set sail to discover the Fountain of Youth, but modern historians doubt he sought it at all. He never mentions it in his detailed accounts. Instead, scholars suggest 16th-century writers fabricated the story after the explorer’s death, for both dramatic effect and defamation—turning the pragmatic professional into a disreputable idealist. Though the legend’s source remains unclear, many ancient heroes were also said to have sought this illusory treasure: Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a magical longevity-granting spring in Ethiopia, and Alexander the Great, in fables building upon his impressive real-life achievements, allegedly crossed the Land of Darkness, in what is now the country of Georgia, to discover the rejuvenating Water of Life. Hints also surface in the Gospel of John with the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda.
J.M. Barrie’s fictional explorer Peter Pan escapes adulthood in Neverland, an island encircled by mermaids, besieged by pirates and replete with other boyish fantasies. Peter personifies what Jungian psychologists later called the puer aeternus, the eternal boy psyche. Essential to the explorer ethos, this personality combines the naive child and the wanderlusty adult, who chafes at boundaries while waiting for his ship to come in.
Magically youthful protagonists Peter Pan and Dorian Gray both personify youth’s selfish indulgence. Peter wants to avoid maturity and adulthood altogether, while Dorian possesses mysterious means to retain his blossoming beauty. In some versions of J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter is tragic rather than comic: an obstinate, boastful orphan, who forgoes emotional relationships to remain childlike. Barrie’s theme of the boy who won’t grow up was based in personal tragedy, the childhood death of his older brother. Oscar Wilde’s narcissistic Dorian becomes horrified by the promise of eternal youth, and the magical portrait that registers his physical decline and moral degradation ultimately causes his breakdown and death.
Both characters have also been co-opted into the pop psychology lexicon. Peter Pan syndrome, first described by psychologist Dan Kiley in 1983, classifies socially immature men suffering from emotional arrested development while they attempt to reclaim their unfulfilled childhood. Dorian Gray syndrome is the inability to cope with physical deterioration, expressed through a compulsion to try antiaging cosmetics and surgeries. Though they haven’t made it into the field’s official literature, these fear-of-aging syndromes perfectly suit a culture that equates beauty and power with transient youth.
An international superstar by age nine, Michael Jackson started out as the quintessential adult trapped in a child’s body. His controlled singing voice and charismatic stage presence revealed talent way beyond his years. But as he grew older, Jackson’s public image reversed itself. He became the music world’s poster child for Peter Pan syndrome, an affliction in which an emotional child is trapped in an adult body. Jackson’s personification of Peter Pan came awfully close to reality when he built Neverland Ranch, his amusement park and home named after Peter’s magical island. Like Peter, Jackson found solace in entertaining cadres of “lost” boys, compensating for his own lost childhood by helping troubled or sick kids.
Jackson’s affinities were scrutinized when he was accused of having sexually molested children from 1993 to 2005, and the creator of Jackson’s fictional inspiration had been the subject of similar scrutiny: J.M. Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, young muses for his play Peter Pan, has, among literary scholars, aroused suspicions of impropriety. Though Jackson was acquitted and no scandal was ever attached to Barrie, both men symbolize the danger of bringing the desire for eternal youth too close to the bedroom.
Since the late 1980s, tabloid rumor mills have cast Michael Jackson as a plastic surgery addict, after cosmetic procedures that allegedly included rhinoplasties, skin bleaching and enhancements to his chin cleft, forehead, cheekbones and lips. Jackson was also accused of altering his face to make himself look more childlike. One result: The London Daily Mirror called him “hideously disfigured.” But the artist was his own harshest critic. “I’m never pleased with anything,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist. It’s who I am.” Psychologists and biographers have hypothesized that Jackson was a victim of body dysmorphic disorder, or a severely distorted self-image.
During Jackson’s 1993 television interview with Oprah Winfrey, a reported 90 million gossip-hungry fans watched him tell his medical story: No, he hadn’t bleached his skin, and he hadn’t endured excessive plastic surgeries (just two). Jackson remained composed and credited his black-to-white skin transformation to vitiligo, a condition that causes skin to lose its pigment. With or without cosmetic surgery, Jackson’s ageless, androgynous and biracial appearance reflected his artistic vision: to challenge stereotypes and break down boundaries in popular culture.
Despite today’s popular longevity-promising treatments (vitamins, diets, oxygen chambers, etc.), aging is still unavoidable. But for Turritopsis dohrnii, the hydrozoa species dubbed the immortal jellyfish, aging is only one possibility. In response to potentially fatal environmental stress, T. dohrnii undergoes cellular transdifferentiation, the process of renewing and reprograming every cell, reversing piecemeal from adult to zygote. Scientists have yet to harness T. dohrnii’s genetic code into the ultimate antiaging drug, but the search for life span–enhancing genes has reinvigorated the quest for the Fountain of Youth on the molecular level.
To cope with the psychological stress of aging, humans resort to a different form of body modification: going under the knife. From the first recorded rhinoplasty, performed in 600 B.C., to the first documented face-lift, in 1901, elective cosmetic surgery, reconstructive plastic surgery’s vainer cousin, has evolved with medical technology as a means to staying young (looking). But unlike T. dohrnii’s, this adaptation is only skin-deep. In 2007, 12 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the U.S. to rejuvenate patients’ breasts, tummies, eyelids and cheeks in an attempt to prolong the brief glories of youth as far as possible.
A spiritual message underlies the research of Japanese biologist Shin Kubota, custodian of the world’s only captive population of “immortal jellyfish,” who is also known by his karaoke pseudonym, Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. Although Kubota is a devoted scientist, he believes that inspiring people to love the natural world through music is truly his life’s work. His original songs, such as “Immortal Jellyfish Marching,” express his wish for humans to achieve immortality through the development of our primitive hearts. One of his lyrics translates as “I’m a wee little jellyfish.… I’m able to store my youth. Everybody lives but only one life, so I hope you can make the present something precious.”
His fellow musician Michael Jackson was Kubota’s message incarnate: Jackson aspired to make the world a better place through music that touched the hearts of millions. Jackson described himself as an “instrument of nature” for transmitting love through music. “To give someone a piece of your heart,” he said, “is worth more than all the wealth in the world.” Although Jackson died in 2009, Cirque du Soleil’s 2011 Jackson tribute show—aptly titled Immortal—made sure his legacy didn’t miss a beat.