“Crashing Out with Sylvian : David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” by Tanja Stark

bowie matryoshka nextday stark
Image : Tanja Stark 2015

David Bowie inhabits Carl Jung’s world of archetypes, reading and speaking of the psychoanalyst with a passion.”  Tony Oursler 2013

Tanja Stark is an Australian visual artist and therapist. Her creative work explores archetypal ideas of ‘Suburban Gothic and the Sublime Divine’. Her Mixed Media work can be found in her online Gallery HERE.. The following piece developed from an exhibition and lecture in 2012 at the Strange Fascinations symposium in Ireland, later published as “Stark, T., Crashing Out with Sylvian: David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” in David Bowie; Critical Perspectives, Routledge Studies in Popular Music 2015. 

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The haunting figure of an intubated, dystopian and alienated creature inhabiting ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (1980) world of religious, sci-fi and industrial imagery, singing of Major Tom’s trajectory like some perpetually unconsummated rapture is a poignant image in David Bowie’s oeuvre. No longer worldly, not quite heavenly, but suspended in some purgatorial cursed space in between, it is hypnotic, erotic and somewhat psychotic.

Yet contained within the cryptic layers of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, with its alluring convergence of iconography, symbols, sound and vision, lie essential thematic concerns that repeatedly permeate Bowie’s prodigious output and have intrinsic parallels with ideas in Jungian psychology; a profound engagement with the Unconscious, a complex relationship with the Numinous [i], tension between opposing polarities (the celestial and the chthonic, visceral and cerebral, sarx and pneuma [ii]) and the ongoing spectre of a shadow that threatens to overwhelm and displace the ordered surface reality.

Indeed, Jungian concepts are so inextricably woven throughout Bowie’s multi-decadal tableau of creativity that in Bowie’s synthesis of mythopoeic themes of the Unconscious with the zeitgeist of pop culture, together with his palpable struggle for meaning, catharsis and knowledge, Bowie has become a poignant contemporary representation of Jung’s ‘visionary artist’, potentially illuminating his deep resonance in popular cultural consciousness.

This essay begins by revealing evidence of Bowie’s long-term fascination with Carl Jung, introduces some of Jung’s ideas and begins an exploration of some intriguing links between Bowie and Jung. Contrasting ideas found in Jung’s writings and his confrontation with the subterranean unconscious in the recently revealed Red Book (2009) with Bowie’s own creative expression uncovers significant parallels in thought and theme that illuminate core aspects of Bowie’s often cryptic, multi-layered work. The territory is often conceptual and poetic barely touching the nuances inherent in Jungian psychology but nonetheless compellingly suggests Jung has been a central influence upon (and compass for) Bowie as both men have navigated the mysterious, sometimes perilous, depths of the psyche.

This essay developed from an exhibition and lecture in 2012 at the Strange Fascinations symposium in Ireland, later published in David Bowie; Critical Perspectives,  Routledge Studies in Popular Music 2015. 

C.G. Jung the Foreman

Something in the Air: Bowie and the Unconscious

The Red Book: Dream Dystopia and Mystic Myth

The Sound of Visions

Changing Personas: Chameleons and Caricatures

All the Jung Dudes

Shadow Man

I will be King and you will be Queen: Archetypal Anima and Alchemy

The Self: The Man who Souled the World

Approaching the Numinous

Strung out in Heavens High

Lacerating Entangled Brains

Subterranean Labyrinths and the Chthonic Underground

Flashing Swords and Bowie Knives

The Last of the Dreamers

C.G. Jung the Foreman

When Bowie famously sung of ‘Jung the foreman’ on Aladdin Sane, with it’s iconic ‘lightning flash’ cover and word play on sanity, it seems the artist was heralding the pivotal resonance the psychiatrist’s ideas had upon his life.   Forty years later, artist Tony Oursler, Bowie’s long-term friend and director of the ‘Where are We Now?’ (2013) film-clip, affirmed Bowie’s deep and abiding connection to Jung. “David Bowie inhabits Carl Jung’s world of archetypes, reading and speaking of the psychoanalyst with passion” revealed Oursler, who also accompanied Bowie to the first public exhibition of Jung’s Red Book in New York in 2009 (Duponchelle 2013).

Symbolic and specific references to Jung abound throughout Bowie’s career. Arguably beginning with his 1967 song ‘Shadow Man’ that poetically encapsulates a key Jungian concept, in 1987 Bowie tellingly described the Glass Spiders of ‘Never Let Me Down’ (1987) as “…Jungian figures, mother figures” around which he not only anchored a worldwide tour, but also created an enormous onstage effigy (Swayne 1987). Bowie acted in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) a story by Jung’s close friend and proponent of Jungian ideas, Laurens Van der Post (Van der Post, 1976), in Labyrinth (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), films with archetypally Jungian shadow struggles, and expressed interest in a proposed Derek Jarman film based on Jung’s book Aion (Matthews 2009).

Bowie’s Glass Spider – an archetypal image of the Terrible, Devouring or the Abandoning Mother?
Merry Chrsitmas Mr Lawrence saw Bowie eerily inhabit an alternate version of his step-brother Terry, consumed with guilt over his younger brother.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence saw Bowie eerily inhabit an alternate version of his half-brother Terry, consumed with guilt over his younger brothers fate…or are their ages reversed here?






So who is Carl Jung and why is Bowie fascinated by him? Born in 1875, this highly intelligent, intuitive and internally conflicted Swiss psychiatrist was fascinated by the mytho-spiritual dimensions of the psyche in the context of emotional health and psychological integration. Most popularly associated with the concepts of synchronicity, introversion, extroversion and with defining the psychological categories of sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking that underpin the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test in his book Psychological Types (Jung 1971), Jung extensively researched religion and esoteric spirituality, the occult, alchemy, mythology and even the UFO phenomenon in his quest to understand human behavior and mental illness. Indeed it was Jung’s fascination with these subjects that contributed to his split with Sigmund Freud.

A prolific writer, Jung’s theories are complex but at their core was an understanding of life as an ongoing process of Individuation, a psychological journey of emergence, transformation and centered integration of the psyche within a holistic Self through conscious awareness, engagement and balance with the energies of the Personal and Collective Unconscious. Jung held that subliminal essences and universal energies profoundly influenced the lives of individuals and societies and believed the recurring mythopoeic symbolism, imagery and narratives found across cultures in art, myth and religion drew from the powerful energies of this Collective Unconscious. Manifesting in ways such as dreams, visions, art, intuitions, spiritual experience and synchronicities, active attention to these expressions could provide pathways to greater integration and wholeness. In contrast, unhealthy repression, denial or unbalanced inflation of unconscious energies could result in pathology, illness, psychosis and psychological disintegration (Jung 1967: 391-402;  Jung 1972: 203-210).

For Jung, expressions of the Unconscious often took form as Archetypal images: thematic ideas that pulsated through art, dream, myth and narrative, such as the Hero, the Savior, the Trickster and the Apocalypse. While archetypal expressions are unlimited, Jung placed recurring emphasis upon several primal images that emerged around the journey toward individuation that are evident in the work of Bowie; the Persona, the Anima/Animus, the Shadow and the Self (Jung 1968). As archetypes contain both light and dark aspects in the way pharmakon can be medicine or poison, they can be creative and life developing or stagnating and toxic. Importantly, Jung noted over-identification with archetypes could be problematic, a significant observation, as will be seen later, in relation to Bowie’s cascading series of personae and roles.

Jung also emphasized the centrality of ‘Coniunctio Oppositorum’ – the conjunction of opposites – in the journey toward wholeness, believing synthesis of polarities could be psychologically transformational if inherent tensions could be creatively balanced [iii]. As Jung noted, “nothing promotes the growth of consciousness as inner confrontation of opposites” (Jung 1967: 345) – a tension that abounds throughout Bowie’s writing.

Something in the Air: Bowie and the Unconscious

Whether it’s fortunate or not I don’t know, but I’m absolutely and totally vulnerable by environment, and environment and circumstances affect my writing tremendously. To the point of absurdity sometimes” (Bowie cited in Jones 1977).

Amongst artists, Jung distinguished the ‘visionary artist’ as one whose creativity drew from primal impulses of the Unconscious (such as dreams), manifesting archetypal themes that resonate across cultures. Highly sensitive to energies within and around them, Jung believed these artists were acutely affected by emotional nuance and social turbulence, their art often expressing repressed energies and ideas that swirled beneath dominant paradigms. Jung wrote:

…whenever the creative force predominates, human life is ruled and molded by the unconscious as against the active will, and the conscious ego is swept along on a subterranean current… the work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe[iv]… [primordial images] are activated–one might say, ‘instinctively’–and come to light in the dreams of individuals and the visions of artists and seers” (Jung 1933: 173).

Yet while this could create deeply resonant art, the process was often overwhelmingly destabilizing for artists. Jung wrote:

Every creative person… is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes… Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument… There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (Jung 1933: 175).

Bowie overtly identified with Jung’s view of the creative process. In 1999 he described himself as “quite Jungian” in his belief in the pervasive influence of the unconscious dream state upon life and acknowledged his art reflected this synthesis between the unconscious and conscious, articulating Jung’s theoretical constructs and embodying the creative process of his ‘visionary artist’:

Being imbued with a vividly active imagination, still, I have brilliantly Technicolor dreams. They’re very, very strong. The ‘what if?’ approach to life has always been such a part of my personal mythology, and it’s always been easy for me to fantasize a parallel existence... I suspect that dreams are an integral part of existence, with far more use for us than we’ve made of them, really. I’m quite Jungian about that. The dream state is a strong, active, potent force in our lives…the fine line between the dream state and reality is at times, for me, quite grey. Combining the two, the place where the two worlds come together, has been important in some of the things I’ve written, yes” (Bowie in Roberts 1999).

Confirming what he had sung from the beginning: “Tell them I’m a dreaming kind of guy and I’m going to make my dream, tell them I will live my dream” (‘When I Live My Dream’ 1967), as Jung wrote, the gift had a price. ‘Time’ intimated how attachment to the ‘strong, active, potent force’ of the unconscious could be alienating:

Breaking up is hard, but keeping dark is hateful, I had so many dreams, I had so      many breakthroughs, But you, my love, were kind, but love has left you Dreamless, The door to dreams was closed… But all I had to give was the guilt for dreaming. Time, (1973)

Both Bowie and Jung shared a pervading, nebulous sense of memories and ‘nostalgia’ outside present time. Jung (1967:34) spoke of a strange sense of having lived in the past: “[as a boy] I could not understand this identity I felt with the eighteenth century…I was overcome by an inexplicable nostalgia”. Bowie expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s odd but even when I was a kid, I would write about ‘old and other times’ as though I had a lot of years behind me” (Bowie in Concert LiveWire 2002). Both Jung and Bowie were also intrigued by a strange familiarity around the future, Jung in his prophetic visions about a coming epoch, while Bowie described:

“…the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for a future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do, however far away I try to get from it … that’s obviously part of what I’m all about as an artist…The idea of having seen the future, of somewhere we’ve already been keeps coming back to me…I’ve often had that feeling very strongly with myself that …well, it’s like what Dylan said about the tunes are just in the air.” (McKinnon 1980: 37)

So it seems through this artistic openness to the unconscious, Bowie cryptically carved his symbolic iconography, infusing primal archetypal concepts that permeate philosophy, esoteric spirituality and literature – timeless undercurrents and anxieties of existence – into the metaphorically futuristic tongue of sexuality, psychology and spiritualized science fiction evident in his music.

The Red Book: Dream Dystopia and Mystic Myth

Jung himself was no stranger to the raw energies of the unconscious. Already an established therapist, during a period of personal and societal turbulence, Jung experienced an overwhelming flood of bizarre waking visions beginning in 1913 and continuing almost daily for many years. “I often had to cling to the table,” he wrote, “so as not to fall apart” (Corbett 2009: 34). Yet Jung believed by confronting and engaging with these visions he could discover wisdom and psychological integration, documenting this journey in calligraphically illustrated journals now known as the Red Book. While claiming this was the seminal experience upon which all his later work was drawn, Jung kept it unpublished during his lifetime for fear it “would look like madness” (Jung 1967: 19).


Finally published in 2009, the Red Book reveals Jung’s Dantean descent into the depths of the unconscious on a metaphorical soul quest. Throughout its pages Jung dialogues with a pantheon of mysterious archetypal figures who teach and torment him with strange visions and syncretic parables of darkness and light, the narrative weaving like a Shamanic mystery play through a psychedelic maze-world to final visions of personal enlightenment and gnosis [v]. And while Jung believed the process contained collective and personal archetypal images, he was emphatic that the content itself was unique to his own individuation process, and encouraged individuals to embark on their own process of engagement with the unconscious to discover their own myth (Jung 2009: 216).

Intriguingly, there seem to be a number of thematic convergences between Jung’s raw confrontation with the unconscious and Bowie’s oeuvre. While it is impossible to discern the extent to which Bowie’s expression is intentionally or subconsciously derivative of Jungian themes, or spontaneously and analogously synchronous, the answer might be a little of both, giving weight to Jung’s idea that the unconscious manifests in primal archetypal patterns and/or that the psyche of both men share some similar frameworks.

Oursler, once again, seems to confirm the link [vi], tellingly hinting that Jung’s Red Book confrontation with the unconscious provides perspective on Bowie’s recent work (Duponchelle 2013), while poet and essayist Norman Ball (2013) has written extensively on the inextricable wedding between these two men. This powerful association seems to have been evident, though largely overlooked, for decades.

The following section explores some of these Jungian references and archetypal ideas, from Bowie’s manifestation of Jung’s persona archetype, shadow explorations, expression of the anima/animus and the integrated Self, to Bowie’s approach to the Numinous and his struggle to integrate opposites, as exemplified by ‘Ashes to Ashes’. At times linking these aspects within the context of modern neurology and ancient esoterica, in the following sections I suggest Bowie is ‘torn between the light and dark’, his multi-layered, symbolic and complex dance with dark and mysterious chthonic energies simultaneously empowering and threatening to overwhelm in his creative quest. In this struggle, Bowie, the consummate dreamer, found a roadmap in the life of Jung.

jung red book monster

Illustrations by David Bowie and Carl Jung, respectively.

 The Sound of Visions

“Jung the foreman prayed at work /Neither hands nor limbs would burst / It’s hard enough to keep formation with this fall out saturation / Cursing at the Astronette / Who stands in steel by his cabinet / He’s crashing out with Sylvian / …With snorting head he gazes to the shore / Once had raged a sea that raged no more” Drive In Saturday’ (1973).

When Bowie sings of Jung in ‘Drive in Saturday (1973) with its post-apocalyptic themes, the verses seems to contain a compellingly cryptic allusion to Jung’s Red Book experiences, the therapist standing by his office cabinet facing a raging sea of visions finding it “hard enough to keep formation” and forced to “cling to a table” (as Jung confessed, above) in their saturating fall out. Jung’s recollection of the period, “My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me” is certainly consistent with Bowie’s lyrics (Jung 2009: back cover). This concept of Jung ‘clinging to the table’ in the face of a hallucinatory stream of images is also synchronistically reflected decades later in Bowie’s film clip for ‘Survive’ (1999), the singer clinging to a table as his grounded domestic reality merges with a space-like dream world and he begins to float strangely around his kitchen.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/180999680″>David Bowie – Survive</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21315416″>Chuck Noland</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Curiously, in a sublimely clever or incredibly synchronistic allusion in the context of Jung’s bizarre visions, the inclusion of “crashing out with Sylvian” could plausibly refer to the Sylvian Fissure in the brain, a region discovered to produce hallucinogenic visions and ‘paranormal’ perceptions when electrically stimulated and, presciently, in 2006, to generate what neurologists called an ‘illusory shadow person’ or doppelgänger phenomenon; themselves highly charged and recurring Bowie archetypes (Penfield 1955; Arzy et al., 2006 [vii]).

Bowie would also invoke Jung when discussingOh! You Pretty Things’ (1971) – “…look out my window what do I see / a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me / all the nightmares came today / and it looks as if they’re here to stay” – a strange visionary intrusion seemingly alluding to Bowie’s half-brother’s hallucinations or, as Dogget (2012: 102) suggests, Bowie’s own. Jung advised patients with disturbing dreams and visions to express them in “beautifully bound journals” to help process their experience and free them from their power, suggesting:

It is of great help …to express their peculiar contents either in the form of writing or of drawing and painting. There are so many incomprehensible intuitions in such cases, phantasy fragments that rise from the unconscious, for which there is almost no suitable language. I let my patients find their own symbolic expressions, their ‘mythology. (Jung 2009: 216)

Bowie seemed to internalise this advice, reflecting, “…according to Jung, to see cracks in the sky is not really quite on…I thought I’d write my problems out” (Doggett 2012: 102). But where Jung used paper and kept his strange visions relatively private, Bowie, as an artist, intuitively recorded his own ‘Red Book’ in spiral grooves of vinyl, adorned the sounds and visions of his dreams and fears with glitter and dye, and shared them with a youth hungering for new manifestations of old myths.

Fascinatingly, the nightmare inducing hallucinogenic hand reaching down from the cracked sky in Bowie’s lyrics darkly mirrors Michelangelo’s archetypal painting in the Sistine Chapel of The Creation of Adam with its crack in the sky and the hand of God reaching down to spark life into Adam, a metaphorical fusion of spirit (pnuema) and flesh (sarx), and the conscious and unconscious dimensions.

creation of adam labelled sylvian
‘All The Jung Dudes’ Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam centers around the iconic image of ‘a crack in the sky and [God’s] hand reaching down’ to spark life into Man.

Intriguingly, the American Medical Journal reported that the portrait of God appears to conform deliberately to the neuro-anatomical shape of the brain, its Sylvian Fissure (associated with Jung in ‘Drive in Saturday) clearly evident, suggesting Michelangelo, a student of mystic esoterica, may have intentionally conflated theology and neurology with the spark of consciousness, and adding further layer to the strange archetypal associations between Bowie, the brain and Jung’s idea of the spontaneous manifestation of the collective Unconscious (Meshberger 1990: 1837; Blech & Doliner 2008).

Changing Personas: Chameleons and Caricatures

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The resonances with Jung continue throughout Bowie’s life and work. Jung’s classic ‘persona’ archetype has been conceptually defining throughout Bowie’s career, often taking exaggerated theatrical forms. While David Bowie himself is a creative persona of David Jones, the multiple (sub) personae from Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke to the more recent Reclusive Artist are a fusion of caricaturized masks and an underlying psyche that appear a mix of deliberate and unconscious creation, enabling a plethora of public and private projections and transference to abound. Bowie’s frequent metamorphosis, both musically and visually, became part of the Bowie myth and gained him a popular reputation as rock’s Chameleon, an archetypal image of camouflage and perpetual change. [viii]

While Jung believed inner plurality was normal, indeed virtually integral to the visionary artist, extreme imbalance was psychologically problematic. When a young Bowie intimated that his personas involved a dissociative psychic splitting of his underlying identity, it suggested powerful personal complexes[ix] behind the creative masks. “…Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David”, he tellingly remarked (Saal 1972).

 Jung believed all people have complexes; clusters of emotionally charged images, emotions and ideas “…derived from one or more archetypes, and characterized by a common emotional tone” that influence behaviours (Samuels, Shorter and Plaut 1986: 34). Jung would write (1960: 97) “…there is no difference in principle between a fragmentary personality and a complex… complexes are splinter psyches”. In becoming conscious of our complexes, “…provided the ego can establish a viable relationship with a complex, a richer and more variegated personality emerges” (Samuels, Shorter and Plaut 1986: 34). Yet Jung (1960: 96) also warned that “…what is not so well known, but far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us. … The unity of consciousness is disrupted and the intentions of the will are impeded or made impossible”. Powerful complexes split off as autonomous archetypes, like possessions, had:

“...a powerful inner coherence, it has its own wholeness and, in addition, a relatively high degree of autonomy, so that it is subject to the control of the conscious mind to only a limited extent, and therefore behaves like an animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness.” (Jung, 1960: 96)

So while Bowie’s chameleon-like procession of personas functioned as potent archetypal images within society, (the subversive artist, mysterious outsider, androgynous alien, the illuminated prophet), as they took on a psychic life of their own, amplified by hubris, fans and media, it seems he was perpetually forced to manage, integrate or crucify these characters with their potentially self-fracturing and possessing energies that entangled him as they split off and dominated his psyche like autonomous archetypes. Bowie would later seem to affirm Jung’s caution around this imbalance:

…that fucker [Ziggy] would not leave me alone for years…my whole personality was affected…It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity… I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in physical sense but definitively in a mental sense” (Bowie in Jones 1977)

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All the Jung Dudes

Jung himself was a man of contradictions, paradox and internal conflict cognizant of internal splits within himself (Jung 1967: 45). Interestingly in one vision from the Red Book, Jung wrestles with multiplicity and his quest to resolve the psychic tension constant ‘changes’ bring to integration through the archetype of the chameleon:

All your rebirths could ultimately make you sick.…a chameleon, a caricature, one prone to changing colors, a crawling shimmering lizard… I recognized the chameleon and no longer want to crawl on the earth and change colors and be reborn; instead I want to exist from my own force, like the sun which gives light and does not suck light…” (Jung 2009: 277)

Although the Red Book wasn’t revealed until 2009, Bowie synchronously reflected Jung’s visionary archetypes of himself as “chameleon” and “caricature” amongst the layers of 1971’s enigmatic Bewlay Brothers “…he’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature” (Bewlay Brothers 1971). Consistent with Jung’s theory that the collective unconscious emerged in visions, dreams and hallucinations in the work of visionary artists, those words followed “…my brother lays upon the rocks/ He could be dead, He could be not / He could be You” again invoking Bowie’s half-brother’s hallucinations and seizures, and strange liminal spaces into which the unconscious can flood. Bowie acknowledged the song had “… layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest…I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion”, affirming its genesis in the mysterious realms of the unconscious (Bowie in Daily Mail 2008). Jung’s visionary chameleon’s quest toward a ‘solar’ nature also reveals his interest in the esoteric and alchemic symbolism of the Sun/Sol, a symbolism similarly reflected in the name of the Music Chameleon’s 1976 Tour and personal company Isolar Enterprises.

But while he may aspire to a solar nature, Bowie’s creative expression can only be fully understood by grasping his intense artistic wrestling with the energies of the shape shifting shadow as it has manifested both in him, and in society. It is this struggle from projection and awareness, to inflation and possession, repression and integration that has Bowie and the shadow locked in a tumultuously hypnotic dance of Faustian conflation, catharsis and Jacobean control for decades, creating an energetic tension that permeates his creative work.

Shadow Man                                                

I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree, and I looked and frowned and the monster was me (‘Width of a Circle’ 1970)

As the repressed, unconscious aspects of the psyche, Jung believed acknowledging and integrating the shadow was an immensely difficult, but crucial part of individuation as it could allow conscious awareness of, (and therefore the ability to manage) dark primal impulses. But this was a risky process that presented real danger of the highly charged and potent shadow merging precariously with the ego during the descent into the shadow realm overwhelming the conscious aspects of the personality with dark and destructive forces of the unconscious (Jung 1968: 123). The undeniable energy and raw authenticity associated with art borne from seeking truth within the depths of human experience saw Jung observe, “…in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity” (Jung 1967: 262). Yet artists could find themselves in deeply vulnerable, precarious positions when immersed in energy so often imbued with psyche twisting permeations. Shadow Man [x], an early Bowie song acknowledges this component of the psyche, recognizing its dual capacity to be “foe” or “friend:

Look in his eyes and see your reflection / Look to the stars and see his eyes / He’ll show you tomorrow, he’ll show you the sorrows / Of what you did today / You can call him foe, you can call him friend / You should call and see who answers / For he knows your eyes are drawn to the road ahead / And the shadow man is waiting round the bend / Oh, the shadow man oooo… It’s really you.” (‘Shadow Man’1971)

The specter of shadow possession has been a potent thematic undercurrent, manifesting therianthropically[xi] as Diamond Dogs (1974) and the dangerously seductive Minotaur of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1977) with its polarized duality that sought exorcising – “Someone else inside me / Someone could get skinned…my-my / Someone fetch a priest / You can’t say no to the Beauty and the Beast” – or insanity inducing spirits on ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ (1980) “She asked me to stay and I stole her room, she asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind…now she’s sleeping in the streets and she can’t socialize”.  The ongoing struggle was sometimes too hard. “…I don’t care which shadow gets me… switch the channels, watch the police cars. I can’t read shit [reach it] anymore,” a war-weary Bowie would confess on ‘I Can’t Read’ (1989).

Bowie’s surprise re-emergence in 2013 was pierced with a dark adult retelling of the original Bowie mythopoeic narrative that had begun so naively with The Laughing Gnome in 1967; possession by the repressed unconscious shadow that inspires creative passion yet ominously threatens to overwhelm and displace the ordered surface reality.   When, in ‘The Stars are out Tonight’ (2013) film clip a dull married couple’s lives are infested by daimonic celebrity doppelgangers (autonomous archetypes) dwelling in the house next door, possessing the wife and replacing domestic reality with eccentric orgiastic passions, it was virtually a poetic retelling of Jung’s warning on the danger of ignoring the repressed energy of an unconscious shadow:

A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. They may dwell in the house next door, and at any moment a flame may dart out and set fire to his own house. Whenever we give up, leave behind, and forget too much, there is always the danger that the things we have neglected will return with added force.” (Jung 1967: 277)

The disturbing ‘Valentines [xii] Day’ (2013) merged the personal with the collective, channeling the unconscious shadow of society’s darkest impulses, Bowie singing of a mass murderer viscerally relishing the slaughter of innocents, ominously revisiting 1970’s ‘Running Gun Blues’.   ‘The Next Day’ (2013) illustrated shadow possession in religious guise while ‘If You Can See Me I Can See You’ (2013) suggested the collective disassociation of a society so possessed by the shadow spirits of greed and theft, it’s psychotically delusional in its hubris.  If you can see the abyss, it can see you.

In Bowie’s overt alliance with William Burroughs in the first Jimmy King portrait released after his long public absence, one wondered if Bowie had been thrashing about with his own ‘Ugly Spirit’ in a creative exorcism of sorts. Certainly Burroughs (1985: xxiii) solution to “…the constant threat of possession…with the invader, the Ugly Spirit… maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out” finds parallel with Bowie’s invocation of Jung and the compulsion to ‘write my problems out’ as discussed earlier. But while its presence is never far from the surface, the destructive aspect of the shadow has not always held the upper hand.

I will be King and you will be Queen:

Archetypal Anima and Alchemy

As the inner feminine and masculine aspects of a man and woman, respectively, the Anima [xiii] and Animus were, to Carl Jung, externally projected archetypal images seeking integration within the Self. Jung called this balanced union ‘Syzygy, a Greek word also used to describe the alignment of celestial bodies, and male-female pairing of spiritual emanations in Gnosticism (Jung 1951: 11-22), itself an interesting concept within the context of Bowie’s androgynous expressions and gnostic spiritual interests, hinting, perhaps, at Syzygy Stardust as futuristic alchemical theatre. The hermaphroditic construction also presciently foreshadows the double-headed mannequins of ‘Where Are We Now’ (2013).


Bowie’s love songs often manifest an archetypal longing for a conjunction transcending earthly constraints into the realm of the metaphysical. Within the pulsating surges of ‘Heroes’ (1977) Bowie imagines a male and female momentarily conjoined as King and Queen, echoing the archetypal union of the Sun King and Moon Queen in the Rosarium Philosophorum, the alchemic Holy Wedding that so fascinated Jung (Jung 1963) and seems to have inspired concepts in Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ (1972). This fascination with the integration of opposites in Heiros Gamos is even more explicit in Bowie’s ‘Sex and the Church’ (1993) with its allusions to gnostic theology and alchemy, laden with symbolism around ‘The Mysteries’ (1993) of mystic union:

…the union of Christ and his bride, the Christian / It’s all very puzzling /… All the great mystic religions / Put strong emphasis, on the redeeming spiritual qualities… a union between the flesh and the spirit / It’s sex and the church…freedom of spirit / And the joys of the flesh” (Sex and the Church 1993).

Early on, Bowie articulated Jungian ideas around these archetypes, describing his awareness of conflating Anima or Eros with the Numinous in a 1976 TV interview:

I have a vast capacity to love, but the one time I found I was falling in love it became obsessive to a point where the object of that affection was becoming overblown. It was no longer a real thing, it was becoming my search for some kind of mythological feeling that man is supposed to have, and probably the feeling that man eventually develops for, an awareness, of God …[Obsessional love satisfies] something that needs to be fulfilled in oneself” (Bowie on Dinah! 1976).

It was a wise observation on the difference between external anima projection and internal integration. Jung had written his archetypal concept of the Anima was a renaming of what the poet Carl Spitteler had called ‘My Lady Soul’ (Jung, 1968:13). Consciously or not, Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (1973) laid bare the pull of her archetypal seductions.

The Self: The Man who Souled the World

In Jungian psychology the central archetype of the ‘Self’ is understood as Wholeness, the integrated outcome of individuation and centered completeness through unification of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. Ego differentiation is generally the task of the first half of life while the return to a unifying Self usually occurs in the second. This is a difficult life work and the journey around Self can be seen in the questions that permeate Bowie’s art; how to reconcile life with death, manage the shadow, nurture an inner spiritual life in the face of redundant institutions and find a sense of hope or at least survive in dystopian realities.

It’s the process that matters, isn’t it? Rather than getting your information – or redemption – easily and directly you must go through this long stubborn painful trek. As with alchemy, the end result isn’t as important as the long process whereby all the inessential aspects of “you” have been stripped away” (Bowie in Penman 1995).

The 1970s titular track ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is a deep and ambiguous expression of an intellectually libidinous pilgrim. The album is an intense dive into existential and illusory realities, spiritual and sensory exploration and dark social commentary wrapped in tripped out rock and roll. But it is the enigmatic title track that so hauntingly embodies the mysterious early search for authenticity.

A possible Jungian interpretation of the song sees the protagonist on a journey of individuation when he encounters a powerful force of the Unconscious. Not quite grasping the full significance of what he has glimpsed “upon the stairs”, he remains partially repressed, splitting it off from himself, or minimizing its influence. After years of searching (ego differentiation of the first half of life) the significance of the enigma unfolds, the Personal merges with the Collective Unconscious (‘I’ becomes ‘we’) and the enormously mysterious influence of the unconscious is revealed, the pilgrim faced with integrating this into consciousness or remaining blind to its powerful influence.

Thirty years later Bowie spoke of a later sense of integration that allowed the song to function as a prescient vision of his soul quest:

I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there’s some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are” (Hobbs, BBC transcript, 1999).

Four decades later the melancholic reverie of 2013’s Where are we Now?’ is a poignant bookend to The Man who Sold the World’. Brimming with archetypal images around the Self the Tony Oursler directed film clip opens focusing on a large diamond, a Jungian symbol of the integrated Self representing “…the union of extreme opposites of matter and spirit” (von Franz in Jung 1964: 221). The curious double headed mannequin reflects Jung’s archetypal anima/animus Syzygy discussed earlier, the alchemical symbolism of the Holy Wedding and the hermaphrodite noble Empress in Rosarium Philosophorum, with wings formed by Berlin’s Victory Tower angel (see Figure 5.3). Against a projection of Bowie’s own Memories, Dreams and Reflections [xiv], the song culminates in the essential archetypal (and alchemically symbolic) elements that remain: Sun , Rain , Fire , You, Me [xv] suggesting balanced wholeness in the process of individuation.

Imagery from the ‘Where are we Now?’ 2013 film clip contrasted with the Noble Empress from the Rosarium Philosophorum, a medieval alchemic work that intrigued Jung shows the similar theme of anima/animus integration or Sygygy.
Imagery from the ‘Where are we Now?’ 2013 film clip contrasted with the Noble Empress from the Rosarium Philosophorum, a medieval alchemic work that intrigued Jung shows the similar theme of anima/animus integration or Sygygy.

Approaching the Numinous

…The main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous.” (Jung 1973: 377)

…. The one continuum [on Outside] that is throughout my writing is a real simple, spiritual search…and everything I’ve written is about “Who is my God? How does he show himself? What is my higher stage, my higher being?” (Bowie in Ill 1997)

 Undoubtedly Bowie’s complex multi-layered and conflicted relationship with spirituality, meaning and existence has been a pervasive theme in his creativity and a life long work in progress. In the mid nineties Bowie claimed that:

“…there’s no doubting for me [spirituality has] been a recurrent qualification of my work from the day I started writing. A very early example, I suppose, is Space Oddity. A more obvious example would be Word On A Wing, More recently, the underlying thread of Black Tie White Noise tried to unify a sort of passion and the spiritual font from which it flowed: the wedding thing” (Bowie in Hollywood On Line 1996).

Eight years later he would affirm this sentiment:

…I honestly believe that my initial questions haven’t changed at all. There are far fewer of them these days but they are really important. Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always. It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on…” (DeCurtis 2005).

Cast in this light, Bowie’s iconic and recurring space imagery can legitimately be understood as new spiritual metaphors for age old themes of alienation and enlightenment, archetypes of pilgrimage, tension and search, as above, so below; outer space as inner space; his cosmology of stars, suns and serious moonlight infused with rich layers of symbolism and contemporary re-imaginings of old mythologies.


Yet Bowie’s work has always had overt and cryptic markers of a spiritual seeker, his grappling with the Numinous manifesting in riddle-some twists across half a century. Torn between the light and dark cornucopia of esoterica in ‘Quicksand’ (1971), Bowie prayed in ‘Loving the Alien’ (1984), descended into Dante’s Inferno in ‘Width of a Circle’ (1970), implored the suicidal to believe in ‘Jump They Say’ (1993), counseled to “seek only peace” on ‘Sunday’ (2002), was “at odds with the Bible” on ‘Bus Stop’ (1989), pleaded to a silent God in ‘I Would be your Slave’ (2002), seemed paranoid at the alliance between Church and State in ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ (1997) and iconoclastically railed at corrupt Catholicism in ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Song after song speaks of faith and despair referencing a pantheon of theologies from Kabbalah, Buddhism and Theosophy to Pentecostalism and paganism, woven together in an intensely consuming and tangled mix of spirit and flesh. Bowie was indeed ‘writing out his problems’ with the Numinous, processing this psycho-spiritual questions through music. On writing Heathen, Bowie would reflect:

…I wanted to prove the sustaining power of music. I wanted to bring about a personal cultural restoration, using everything I knew without returning to the past. I wanted to feel the weight and depth of the years. All my experiences, all the questions, all the fear, all the spiritual isolation…” (Bowie in Livewire 2002).

Later he quipped “… Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time. I thought, ‘There’s salvation.’ It didn’t really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity… pottery, and ended up singing. It’s been a long road” (Bowie on ‘Ellen’ 2004). Yet there has always been an enduring, pervasive interest with the psychology of mind and spirit percolating around gnostic, alchemic and hermetic concepts that so interested Jung. Speaking around Earthling, Bowie expressed the centrality of his drive to integrate opposites and find spiritual balance in the face of death:

…[there is] this abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism. I keep going backwards and forwards between the two things, because they mean a lot in my life…. I have no empathy with any organised religions. What I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise. And that period of time – from today until my demise – is the only thing that fascinates me” (Cavanagh 1997: 52).

Bowie knew from experience how dangerous imbalance can be. Like Mr. Newton watching a wall of televisions in 1976’s film The Man who Fell to Earth Bowie’s highly sensitive antennae perpetually tuned to the zeitgeist could leave him perilously vulnerable to the destabilizing energies of the unconscious. When an emaciated, fragile Bowie empathized with a fly drowning in milk, “ … That’s kind of how I felt – a foreign body and I couldn’t help but soak it up, you know” (Cracked Actor 1975) it was a vivid analogy of the visionary artist’s bittersweet gift that would bring him precariously close to the edge in a pivotal period marked by apparent psychotic implosion around the Station to Station years. His rational psyche subsumed by the dopaminergic excess of cocaine abuse and unbounded esoteric spiritual and occult obsessions, Bowie would reflect, “I was out of my mind, totally crazed. The main thing I was functioning on was mythology (Sandford 1997: 158). This unrestrained acquiescence to the unconscious allowed the Shadow to overwhelm in the persona of the Thin White Duke with all his mytho-aryan hubris and was a toxic mix to his disintegrated and vulnerable psyche. So while the creative expression of this period is imbued with powerful archetypal energies exploring polarities of the eternal and the ephemeral, the shadow merger destructively subverted this into psychologically dark and dangerous territory, a risk, as discussed earlier, Jung knew faced all visionary artists.

Yet within those depths a numinous light also emerged. “A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps…” wrote Jung (1968: 123), an admonishment Bowie appeared to manifest in ‘Word on a Wing’ (1976) “…and I don’t stand in my own light, Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing/ And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things…”. The song spoke of a glowing vision flowing from the unconscious into his conscious life.

That this was a profoundly numinous experience for Bowie, a spiritually enantriodromic counterpoint to the darkness, functioning as a psychological salvation can be seen in a significant interview he gave fours years later:

Word On A Wing I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making [The Man who fell to Earth] that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing. It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth and Word On A Wing was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt… The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small silver cross hanging on his chest) again… now almost a leftover from that period… But at the time I really needed this. Hmmm (laughs), we’re getting into heavy waters… but yes, the song was something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening…” (MacKinnon 1980).

So while profound numinous experiences can be genuinely transformational, Jung was aware the intensity of the process ran the risk of sending the psyche spinning wildly between polarities from dark to light, and the important work of balanced integration and individuation must continue (Stein 2006). Interestingly, at the time of the interview Bowie was promoting Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), an album profoundly cognizant of this tension between disintegrated polarities and the powerful, often frighteningly dark energies of the unconscious. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, together with its earlier, and according to Bowie, spiritually themed counterpart ‘Space Oddity’, provides a graphic illustration of this concept.

Strung out in Heavens High

“I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the Earth bathed in a gloriously blue light…and I myself was floating in space,” Jung (1967: 289) wrote of a numinous vision during a near death experience. Paralleling Major Tom in ‘Space Oddity’ “…here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world, planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” the synchronistic imagery again suggests archetypal convergence. But if Bowie’s psychonaut [xvi] seems blissful, it is because he is oblivious he has lost touch with ground control, drifting into space severed from sustaining realities, at the mercy of the unconscious.   Vulnerable to the chaos that will emerge in ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Space Oddity’ is a deeply symbolic song that elicits primal recognition of personal and collective anxieties around fracture and disintegration, with Major Tom symbolically personifying the split between the celestial and terrestrial, spirit and flesh, sanity and psychosis, and society’s increasing disconnection both from the sacred and the grounding of the Earth.

The psychic tension around the integration of opposites becomes extreme in Ashes to Ashes, giving creative form to Jung’s prophetic tone: “You yourself are a conflict that rages in and against itself in order to melt its incompatible substances…. in the fire of suffering…. crucified between the opposites and delivered up to the torture until the reconciling third takes shape.” (Jung 1945: 375)

With a title echoing the Christian funeral rite and the alchemic process of calcination (the reduction of a substance by heat or fire to ashes) signaling its metaphorically spiritual tenor, Major Tom has awoken to the mental torture of psycho-spiritual alienation. ‘Strung out in heavens high hitting an all time low’, between harsh externalities and internal complexities, medieval mystic St John’s Dark Night of the Soul manifested in the shrieking silence of space. The lyrics despair at relativist, biological determinism and impotent polarity – ‘I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things, I’ve never done anything out of the blue’ – while the beloved anima/wife of ‘Space Oddity’ has become a scolding Mother archetype. Screaming for an axe to break through this nihilistic, frigid space he begs for the grounding of Earth, despite ‘little green’ demons waiting there too.

“Ashes to Ashes” 1980 from David Bowie on Vimeo.

The film clip shows Bowie in several guises. A hypnotic whiteface clown, an archetypal Trickster perhaps, wades in the sea of the unconscious (recalling Jung’s raging sea in ‘Drive in Saturday’) later flanked by religious figures, as a bulldozer, a symbol of industrial progress, threatens to crush numinous ritual into the ashes of modernity. Later he is an alien(ated) man suspended and entangled in a mass of twisted organic fibres and tubes resembling an alien brain, then a Madman alone in a padded room. A terrifying psychotic convergence, Major Tom has become conscious of the powers of the unconscious and the horrors of the shadow within him and society, strung out between opposing polarities, both prophet and victim, desperately seeking psychological reconciliation.   As Jung (1971: 824) wrote:

… full parity of the opposites…leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong counter motive. Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damming up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an unsupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new, uniting function that transcends them”. 

The symbols of psychic tension emerge in Jung’s Red Book visions, suggesting primal resonance of an archetypal imagery around dis/integration. Yet in Jung we see the emergence of the transcendent function that is borne from the struggle. Crucified between opposites, in the Nox Toxtia vision (Jung, 2009: 300) Jung describes being frighteningly strung out between heavens high and the low earth, conjoined between blazing fires. But unlike Major Tom terrifyingly adrift, Jung remained simultaneously rooted in the earth and hooked upon the sky seeking balanced integration of the polarized Self. Later hanging in the Tree of Life [xvii]tormented by the devil during the agonizing process of reconciling opposites, Jung (2009: 324-325) holds this tension until transformational, transcendent unity emerges. It is tempting to imagine Jung prefigured Major Tom when writing of a man “…uprooted and hovering above earth, succumbing to exaggeration and irreality”(sic), driven insane as a result of being possessed by nothing more than the inner world of his thoughts without grounding in real life. Instead it was Frederick Nietzsche, another influential figure in Bowie’s writing (Jung 1967: 189).

Lacerating Entangled Brains

Allusions to tortured, entangled psyches consistently permeate Bowie’s albums, the tension between the cerebral and the visceral belying an enduring underlying anxiety around the trauma experienced by his immediate family and his own existential questions. There is an unforgettable apex in Bowie’s dark anthemic ballad, Rock and Roll Suicide’ (1972) where he cries “All the knives seem to lacerate your brain I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain…you’re not alone”. It’s a moment of empathy that promises deliverance from the agony of internal torture. Decades later we hear this anguish again:

In red-eyed pain I’m knocking on your door again, my crazy brain in tangles pleading for your gentle voice, those storms keep pounding through my head and heart, I pray you’ll soothe my sorry soul” (Days, 2002)

Indeed over two dozen songs contain a specific reference to the brain or mind, often hostile, fragmented, and associated with violence and destruction – something Jung would describe as a strong (and justifiable) complex. In his own practice Jung believed word association tests could help identify the presence of complexes with pauses and inflections indicating emotionally charged words with which issues were associated (Petchkovsky et al. 2013). During an interview around ‘Never Let Me Down’ Jools Holland once co-opted Bowie into an impromptu word association test (Holland 1987). Cor, bloody hell, who you bringing on this, Jung? Ha ha Jung! C.G. Jung!” Bowie laughingly replied, revealing his familiarity with this concept. Deliberately or not, in this lighthearted exchange Bowie smoothly responded to all words offered, with two exceptions: ‘USA’…to which he paused and said “chasm”, and “David Bowie” followed by a long pause to which he responded “…lost”.

Subterranean Labyrinths and the Chthonic Underground

Jung’s own cerebral anxiety emerges in a Red Book vision where he describes himself entangled in a strange twisted mass of organic roots and fibres he realises is his own brain (recalling the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ image of Bowie suspended in an organic brain-like cave), Met by gnome-like Cabiri from the subterranean depths Jung is presented with a ‘Flashing Sword’ they have forged to lacerate his brain and sever him from the entrapment, but he rails against their suicidal instruction. Yet the Cabiri, who are also part of this entanglement insist on this destruction. Finally slicing through his brain, Jung (2009: 314) gains balance and self-mastery submitting his analytical mind to the creative wisdom of the depths.

The mythological spirits of the subterranean Underworld held great symbolism for Jung, embodying the fertile juices of the Unconsciousness with their capacity for wisdom; and he cautioned against dismissing them lightly. It is significant in this context that across the years Bowie creatively manifested his own subterranean creatures of the underworld, “hanging out with your dwarf men” on the mysterious Bewlay Brothers’ (1971), “gnomes” and “dwarves” on the free association lyrics of ‘Little Wonder’ (1997).   The following examples poignantly illustrate Jung’s observations and reflect once again a central Bowie narrative.

Instinctually theatrical, Bowie’s expression of subliminal energies was not bounded by the intellectual self-constraint of Jung and his earliest creative work reveals a foreboding aspect around the unbounded Unconscious, ironically illustrated in his own Cabiri-esque encounter from the underworld in 1967’s whimsical ‘Laughing Gnome’.   Followed home by a gnome, the narrator feeds and sends him off, only for him to weirdly reappear later with a doppelganger[xviii]. Co-opting these twins’ fertile creativity for financial gain, the young protagonist seems oblivious to the potentially subversive energies of unrestrained Unconscious invasion and his ability to sanely co-exist with these uninvited entities now infesting his chimneystack [xix] (a now blocked interior vent) who taunt him “… hee hee hee, I’m the laughing gnome, you can’t catch me” about their slippery ungraspable nature. Jung was not so naïve:

…when one analyses [sic] the psychology of a neurosis one discovers a complex, a content of the unconscious, that does not behave as other contents do, coming or going at our command but obeys its own laws, in other words it is independent or as we say, autonomous. It behaves exactly like a goblin that is alluding our grasp.” (Jung in Diamond, 1999: 100).

In contrast, when Bowie portrayed the dark yet beguiling Goblin King in the movie Labyrinth (1986) – an archetypal quest into the shadowy depths of the Unconscious – it’s dangers were palpably and seductively clear. The film clip to Bowie’s soundtrack Underground (1986) is a classic Nekyia tale, its gospel sounding “Daddy Daddy get me out of here” mirroring Christ’s “Father Father why hast thou forsaken me”, while, “wanna live underground” reveals the temptation to remain in this subterranean world underlying reality. Significantly, the way out of this movie labyrinth lay in consciously confronting the shadow, rather then being hypnotically subsumed by its dark goblin energy. It was a journey Jung understood intrinsically, prefiguring this archetypal movie writing of his Red Book visions:

…in order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me “underground” I knew I had to let myself plummet down into them…only by extreme effort was I finally able to escape from the labyrinth” (Jung 1967: 178).

Flashing Swords and Bowie Knives

Conceptually speaking, if Jung’s Cabiri are a symbolic personification of chthonic forces of the Unconscious, paralleling Jung’s vision, perhaps these same fertile energies that gave David Jones his imagination and mental entanglements also provided him with his own ‘Flashing Sword’ in the form of a ‘Bowie’ knife, a creative identity allowing both engagement and expression of the unconscious and the ability to destroy his psychological ‘brain’ entanglements through art. This metaphorical convergence becomes all the more intriguing as research suggests the ‘Flashing Sword’ handed to Jung by the visionary Cabiri is actually an obscure Kabbalah concept associated with the Mezla Lightning Flash of Creation that zigzags from station to station of the mystic Tree of Life (Stavish 2007: 91) conjuring a multitude of associations with Bowie, from Aladdin Sane’s iconic ‘zigzag’ Lightning Flash (on the album that cites Jung) to Bowie’s drawing of the Tree of Life on the back cover of Station to Station. In this vein, the surrealist invocation ‘Zane Zane Zane’ on both All the Madmen (1970) and Buddha of Suburbia (1993) is likely a reference to the Sword of Zain associated with unity, duality, sol/luna and heiros gamos (Web of Qabalah 2014). These cryptic links once again recall Michelangelo’s archetypal painting The Creation of Adam and its convergence, according to Blech & Doliner, (2008) with mystic Kabbalah, science and consciousness and the visionary links described in this paper, between Bowie’s ‘Jung’ songs and the Sylvian Fissure.[xx]


Keeping with the visionary ‘flashing sword’ / Bowie knife metaphor, shades of the subterranean Cabiric wisdom to destroy the intellectually entangled brain to enable creative and spiritual liberation are found in Seven Years in Tibet (1997) with its lyrics that sing of a mystic spirituality facilitated by the violent destruction of the conscious brain: “Are you Ok, you’ve been shot in the head and I’m holding your brains the old woman said…I praise to you Nothing ever goes away”[xxi]. Indeed, after the years of struggle, 1999’s “hours…” album similarly stands out in Bowie’s oeuvre as reflecting Jungian ideas of balance, portraying a tangible equanimity in its reverie that speaks so often of the unconscious dream world: ‘Something in the Air’, ‘If I’m Dreaming My Life’, ‘Seven’, ‘New Angels of Promise’, ‘The Dreamers’. Even the album’s interior artwork contains a ‘mandala’ of unified duality, abalanced circular image Jung felt symbolic of the Self, (Jung 1967: 196) lying between the cover iconography of an ethereal mythopoeic Bowie cradling his Earthling self, and on the reverse, a dark Shadow trinity, black serpent at their feet, beginning to break down. Laden with spiritual symbolism around the cosmic interactions of light and dark, its imagery recalls Jung’s archetypal release from the crushing grip of a black serpent in the Red Book (Jung 2009: 251).

Would that it were always so poetically balanced. In contrast to ‘Where are we Now?’ and its Jungian themes of the integrated Self which heralded Bowie’s return in 2013, the final song on The Next Day album is the spiritually tormented and ‘disintegrated’ Mobius strip of ‘Heat’ a song seemingly wrestling again with the gnostic prison of matter, mystic perception, prescience, (self) deception and identity: “…My father ran the prison, I can only love you by hating him more, That’s not the truth …And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am …But I am a seer, I am a liar” (Heat, 2013). Entangled in another psyche twisting ‘hellish’ knot, imprisoned between polarities, the song echoes themes explored throughout this chapter – Bowie’s complex spiritual relationship with the Numinous, the Shadow, Persona, and the Self. And, as if to underline his enduring dance with the mysterious force of the Unconscious, Bowie opens the song drawing from Mishima’s novel Spring Snow, “Then we saw Mishima’s dog, trapped between the rocks… The peacock in the snow, a novel that sees the protagonist wrestling with prophetic dreams, omens and the specter of Unconscious invasion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passage this lyric draws from – “… he saw a flock of peacocks settle suddenly on the snow…‘I’m too involved in my dream-world’, he thought… ‘They’ve spilled over into reality, they’re a flood that’s sweeping me away’”(Mishima 2010: 149) – has deep echoes of Jung’s description of his overwhelming flood of Red Book visions “…that burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me” (Jung 2009: backcover) that Bowie had sung of forty years earlier.

The Last of the Dreamers

This chapter explores the relationship between David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious, revealing a compelling connection evident in the way Bowie has been spontaneously and deliberately expressing, articulating and synthesizing Jungian ideas and archetypes throughout his career. Jung’s ideas appear to have resonated strongly with Bowie as he creatively processed the complex world of the psyche exploring numinous dimensions, and wrestling with tension, conflict and paradox through archetype and caricature, metaphor and myth.

Encapsulating Jung’s idea of a Visionary Artist, Bowie’s creative expression appears to have drawn intensely from the Unconscious in creating his own metaphorical ‘space’ cosmology in music that infuses modern anxieties with ancient and contemporary symbolism. In manifesting these archetypal themes, from the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, the Persona and the Self ,with the tension between opposites, Bowie’s art reflects a  struggle for authenticity in the process of individuation. While this has often come at great cost to his own psyche, throughout the process his work has evoked primal motifs that resonate deeply with his audience, consciously and instinctually.

Jung implored individuals to ‘find your myth’. David Jones searched and not only found his own, he creatively embodied one for our time.

Tanja Stark 2015

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If you made it this far I would love to hear your thoughts below.

Explore how the Archetype of Death pervaded the work of Bowie prior to his death in “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” .  Bloomsbury Press, 2015.


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Notes [i] The metaphysical, sacred, spiritual and / or transcendent dimension. See Stein (2006).

[ii] Celestial and Chthonic: the heavens and the underworld; Sarx and Pneuma (Greek): flesh (matter) and spirit

[iii] “My soul flies erratically on the wings of what I would imagine is a feeble bi-polarism…something akin to that brushes past me…” (Bowie in Livewire, 2002).

[iv] Perhaps,it was not Bowie who created Major Tom, but Major Tom who created Bowie.

[v] Gnosis: Greek for knowledge,associated with the revelation of hidden wisdom and mystery.

[vi] From the original French interview that appeared in La Figaro.

[vii] Electromagnetic stimulation of the left temporo-parietal junction of a patient with epilepsy caused an effect similar to the doppelgänger phenomenon.

[viii] Despite Bowie’s stated discomfort with this term, his record company released a compilation album entitled Chameleon in 1979.

[ix] Jung believed word association tests could indicate the presence of complexes; pauses and inflections hinting at words with which they were associated (Petchkovsky et al., 2013).

[x] An early reference to the Jungian Shadow archetype that ironically converges with the 2006 neuroscience paper “Induction of an illusionary Shadow Person” suggesting stimulation around the Sylvian fissure could produce a doppelganger effect.

[xi] Human / animal metamorphosis or shape shifting, associated in mythology and folklore with magical powers and often dark, possessing energies, i.e. Werewolves

[xii] A surprising name given Bowie’s (and Jung’s) overt interest in Gnosticism. .Valentinius was a Gnostic teacher from Alexandria, the name of Bowie’s daughter.

[xiii] Jung speaks of his concept of Anima as a renaming of what poet Carl Spitteler termed “his Lady Soul”.

[xiv]Memories, Dreams and Reflections’ : Jung’s semi-autobiography.

[xvi] ‘Psychonaut’ : a sailor of the mind (Blom 2009: 434).

[xvii] The Tree of Life : a Kabbalah concept Bowie draws on the cover of Station to Station (1976).

[xviii] Sylvian fissure stimulation, again converging neuro-biology with mystic phenomenon

[xix] Perhaps foreshadowing of a darker chimney-phile, the reptilian, narcissistic Jean Genie (1972).

[xxi] In Jungian psychology, the emergence of a Wise Old Woman archetype speaks of late stage individuation, the film clip incorporating Minotaur (shadow), Kirlian photograph of his cross (energy and transcendence), and Buddhist (equanimity) symbols.

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27 thoughts on ““Crashing Out with Sylvian : David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” by Tanja Stark

    1. Or maybe not. In looking that up, Wikipedia (citing Loving The Alien) says late Ziggy drew inspiration from The Wild Boys. So not the stage name I guess.

  1. Hello Ms Stark, I’d like to thank you for your very insightful and interesting study of David Bowie’s world in the light of CG Jung’s work. I’ve been informed of your analysis after I made a modest contribution on the subject myself. It’s more specific than your work, since it deals mainly with David Bowie’s Anima. Even if it tries to be more poetic than informative, I’d be very honoured if you accepted to take a look at it. You may read here: https://jungianbowie.shost.ca/2018/01/10/jung/david-bowie-and-his-anima-conversation-piece/

    Thank you. For this, and for your great analysis.

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