“I want Eagles in my Daydreams, Diamonds in my Eyes” Bowie swoons on his enigmatic new work Blackstar. His soulful longing follows a hubristic rant as a trickster God enticing the faithfully enslaved to sacrifice themselves for him. He’ll take your passport and shoes, your valium and your worship. You might make a martyr, but you’re a flash in the pan, he’s the Great I AM, and he’s laughing as all thePretty Things are going to Hell.
According to rumours by musicians who worked with Bowie ( but denied by ‘official sources’) the song references Isis. Who knows? I have previously suggested Bowie’s work on both Outside and Loving the Alien explores this territory in “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” in the Bloomsbury book Enchanting David Bowie
“Bowie’s linking of violence, spiritual belief and death, and the lack of contemporary, culturally resonant frameworks to meaningfully process these powerful energies explored on Outside is intriguing, particularly when considering why people are attracted to violent expressions of belief, such as “Islamic State”. (Bowie had previously explored the ancient clash of religious ideology in his 1985 song “Loving the Alien”, singing of terror and torture from the crusades through to modern times: “Watching them come and go, the Templars and the Saracens…Torture comes and torture goes …terror in the best laid plans…Christians and the unbelievers, hanging by the cross and nail”).
Grace’s corpse on Outside seemed the end result from the convergence, subversion and dysfunctional channeling of these primal drives. Bowie sang in several guises across the 1995 album, from Detective Nathan Adler, who had undertones of a cryptic “Grand Inquisitor” figure (Dostoyevsky, 1880), [xiii] to murder suspect, Leon Blank, a reversal of Noel, herald of emptiness, a Holy Fool cutting esoteric zeroes into the fabric of time and perceiving hidden mysteries through “These Architects Eyes”, a name for God in the mystery traditions. [xiv] Deliberately ambiguous, the project possibly intimated the Detective himself could be the Minotaur serial killer who murdered Baby Grace, a theological implication perhaps cryptically reflected in “The Next Day” single and film clip with its contempt for exploitative religious leaders who “work with Satan while they dress like saints” and corrupt institutions of power that exploit and destroy the Grace they should protect and illuminate.” Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses, Stark July 2015
Blackstar was released the week following the Bataclan Slaughter at the Eagles of Death Metal concert. The killing began during their song Kiss the Devil. It was recorded long before. They had already played Don’t Speak, I came to make a Bang.
“Don’t move, don’t speak, even whisper/There’s something happenin’ but don’t be scared/I’m too smooth, you never see me coming … I’m your fabulous weapon/ I’ll hit your target… but don’t be scared/I’m in too tight, gonna feel it tonight, yeah/Baby girl, gonna take your whole world/I came to make a bang, yeah”Eagles of Death Metal (setlist here)
According to a witness, music journalist Pierre Janaszak those lyrics seem to have played themselves out at the Bataclan:
“[The terrorists said] in French, of course, to the free hostages – one woman, her boyfriend and another guy – “Why are you crying? Why are you crying?” And the guy said: “Because I’m scared” He said – “You don’t have to be scared, you will be dead in few minutes, so don’t worry”… This girl just stopped crying, instantly…”.
At the time of the slaying the Blackstar symbol, seen on Bowie’s ‘holy’ book was everywhere. Most curiously, it showed up on the hand of the Josh Homme, playing drums years earlier in the film clip for Speaking in Tongues. That song came to lead singer Jesse Hughes in a dream, he claimed. Fully formed.
“The first songs I ever wrote, like “Speaking in Tongues” and “Flames Go Higher,” they came in my dreams. I shit you not. I woke up with the whole song lyric and everything in my head. That was really easy.” Jesse Hughes
This idea of the synchronistic manifestation of symbolism in the dreams and visions of seers and artists is something I’ve explored in depth across the past 4 years. Jung’s manifestations of the collective unconscious, if you will. And what I’ve learned is not to dismiss it offhand. Much of this territory is archetypal and open to interpretation, to be sure, but thats why it’s in the subjective realms of poetry, art and spirituality.
“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” David Bowie in Crashing Out with Sylvian Stark 2015
I want Eagles in my Daydreams, Diamonds in my Eyes?
This Place Is Death (from Diamond Eyes) You arrive in my dream Beside me every night…You and me, we explode through the scene,We try to drain the night empty….No one goes off in every way…Like you do… We spray the scene in red…No one else has a hold over me…Like you do… This place is death, I know you feel the same.
The Prince ( Diamond Eyes)
The mindset/Of a killer…With your gaze/You paint the room/Blood red/ With tears/Pouring from the stage……Now open your empty hands/Cause here comes the fun here comes the end…Then clear out the room/Blow kisses, wave them goodbye…Goodnight.
Rocket Skates (Diamond Eyes) You’re red soaking wet… I’m right next to you…You’re red soaking wet…Let’s writhe, Let me see you trip. One move that will keep you wet/Let’s fall in a long sadistic trance…Put the keys in our hands…GUNS! RAZORS! KNIVES!
I have no idea why The Eagles of Death Metal seemed to be linked with Bowie and Blackstar, but the moment the Paris massacre happened, there seemed to be weird synergies about.
I’ve come to the working hypothesis, that, as mysterious as they are, synchronous occurrence of archetypal and more specific imagery is a real phenomena that some people are particularly sensitive to perceiving.
Advocate, adversary or acolyte of angels or devils, those mortals with antennae perpetually tuned to the zeitgeist -the prophets, the madmen and the artists – swim in prescience and synchronicity. Perhaps what Jung called the Collective Unconscious could arguably be called the Powers and Principalities referred to in the New Testament, or Energies to New Agers. I guess it depends on your perspective. There are enough reports throughout history on visionary experience, madness, temporal lobe epilepsy and mysticism to know something is going on. (See Javier Alvarez-Rodriguez’s concept ‘hyperia’ in Psychic Neuronal Hypersynchronies: A new Psychiatric Paradigm,for example. ) The challenge is perhaps less one of credibility, but of how to hold this extra sensory awareness in balance and not fall into hysteria, depression, psychosis or mania, or at least, stay there.
When David Bowie portrayed Pontius Pilate in the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, right wing Catholic extremists in Paris bombed the St Mitchel Theatre where the movie was playing. Allegations of blasphemy so stoked the angry flames in the hearts of the devout, some decided the best way to avenge Christ’s honour was through murder. (And they literally used sulphuric acid as the trigger). Sadly it sounds all too familiar.
“Before the film opened, the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, condemned it without having seen it. He said, ”One doesn’t have the the right to shock the sensibilities of millions of people for whom Jesus is more important than their father or mother.” After the fire, Cardinal Lustiger condemned those responsible for what the police suspect was arson. ”You don’t behave as Christians but as enemies of Christ,” the prelate said. ”From the Christian point of view, one doesn’t defend Christ with arms. Christ himself forbade it.” New York Times, Oct 1988
Based on Nikolas Kotzankiszis book, Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is theologically intense and confronting and throws up complex questions around personal agency, the character of god and the devil, good and evil, and our capacity for delusion and self deception. There are intriguing conflations of psychosis with visionary experience, destiny and desire. Classic Bowie territory. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an important one.
Bowie’s portrayal of Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ is much like that of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquistor who, in turn, seems to reflect the character Bowie is portraying/channelling in Blackstar. When confronted with an imprisoned and silent Christ incarnated in Spain, the Inquisitor berated Christ for his follies of freedom.
People don’t want freedom, he taunted, they want bread, tricks and someone to blindly tell them who to worship and what to do. They desire to be Slaves. Not joint heirs of the kingdom. You failed all three tests of the Devil in the wilderness, he accused. Who wouldn’t want Power, Wealth and Magic?
“I believe this…” David Bowie 2002.
Give me peace of mind at last/Show me all you are…I would give you all my love/Nothing else is free/Open up your heart to me/And I would be your slave
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Bowie as Pilate sent Christ off to Golgotha, the Place of Skulls to be crucified. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamokov, when the Inquisitor finished his admonishment, Christ silently walked over and kissed the Inquisitor on his cold lips. Seemingly rattled, instead of sending Christ to his death, he released him out into the dark alleys of the city. Significantly, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea”.
Who will kiss the Devil? the ReverendJessie Hughes, nicknamed ‘the Devil’ was singing when ISIS stormed the Bataclan. “I will kiss the devil on this tongue” he gleefully replied, seemingly oblivious that Old Nick might take him literally.
Bowie has always had a thing for that ol’ gospel call and response. Remember Width of a Circle with Bowie’s “tongue swollen with devils love”? “Turn around and go back”, warned the lyrics to little avail. “Wanna stay underground” Bowie’s gospel choir sang in Underground, the soundtrack to Labyrinth.
“…the hallways became a labyrinth…” Jesse Hughes describes his desperate attempt to outrun the terrorists.
Descents, Nekyia’s, Night Sea Journeys what ever you want to call them, are all archetypal ways of describing the journey into the darkness of ones (and perhaps societies) soul. They are pivotal and important, but however mesmerising or despairing the process, shamanic or otherwise, you have to resist the temptation to remain in the subterranean netherworlds. You must find your way back to the light. If “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a metre and then stepped aside” then perhaps apsychopomp is in order. Eternal hovering, strung out in heavens high, is no good for anybody.
Bowie is definitely a Seer – some intriguing mix of prophet, madman and visionary artist. Whether he is a liar, well, again, who can tell. Reviews of Blackstar the album have noted its similarity in tone to Station to Station. That album marked an apex of creativity, but personal abyss of addiction, spiritual confusion and mental hell that he barely survived. It was the time of The Man who Fell to Earth, (the ‘prequel’ to Lazarus) from Kether to Malkuth, of glowing visions and occult headfucks. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is…” exhibition reveals an aborted line from Station to Station as “You love like a bomb/You smell like a ghost’. Weird.
Incidentally I’ve got an image in that exhibition. It’s a shot of Bowie Matryoshka’s at Trinity College, Dublin. Layers upon layers of Bowie personas that stack inside themselves. “Something deep inside of me, a yearning deep inside..”
In 1976, a manically inflated Bowie was interviewed for Rolling Stone by a young Cameron Crowe. Yet, in what may have seemed like nonsense 30 years ago looks pretty damn prescient in the face of ISIS now.
“I think we are due for a revival of God awareness. Not a wishy-washy kind of fey, flower-child thing, but a very medieval, firm-handed masculine God awareness where we will go out and make the world right again. I’m feeling more and more that way.”
Bowie continues: “…Rock & roll has been really bringing me down lately. It’s in great danger of becoming an immobile, sterile fascist that constantly spews its propaganda on every arm of the media. It rules and dictates a level of thought and clarity of intelligence that you’ll never raise above. …Rock & roll too — it will occupy and destroy you that way. It lets in lower elements and shadows that I don’t think are necessary. Rock has always been the devil’s music. You can’t convince me that it isn’t…
…I have to carry through with my conviction that the artist is also the medium….I believe that rock & roll is dangerous. It could well bring about a very evil feeling in the West. I do want to rule the world. There’s always a pendulum swing, right? Well, we’ve had the high with rock. It’s got to go the other way now. And that’s where I see it heading, bringing about the dark era… I feel that we’re only heralding something even darker than ourselves…”
Jesse Hughes from the Eagles of Death Metal mades some striking similar comments in 2015:
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to take full fucking credit right now for fucking the destruction of everything good, OK? Because it’s true,” he says. “Everything that the Bible thumpers said about Elvis is fucking true. It destroyed everything: Intimacy, the ability for people to be married — society at large is gone. [Pop culture] brought us the Internet, mass pornography, the death porn of Quentin Tarantino. It’s all fucking darkness and evil and has one goal, dude. And it’s not anything good for us. That’s the fucking reality of it, dude…”
Back in 1976, Bowie went on to say:
“I have this dream. I’d like to host a satellite television show and invite all the biggest bands onto one stage. Then I’d come out with a great big wheelbarrow of machine guns and ask them, ‘Now how many of you are gonna do anything? How many are going to pick up a gun and how many of you are gonna cling to your guitars?'”
Bowie got damn close to seeing this dream in Paris.
Amidst the inflation, the delusions of grandeur, and the smatterings of paranoia, perhaps redolent of bi-polar or drug induced mania or psychosis I still ask is there something else going here? And my answer, after years of pondering the intersection between madness, genius, creativity and mysticism, is yes. And it seems the best psychiatrists agree. Some people, especially those at risk of going ‘mad’ are literally channeling the zeitgeist at levels their rational minds cannot process. Be clear I’m not drawing causative link here. This is a very important distinction. Much of this stuff functions at the level of instinct and unconsciousness, bubbling to the surface. Weather vanes do not cause the weather, do they?
Bowie claims that Mark Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon, had him next on the list. Bowie was acting on Broadway at the time, playing Elephant Man. Bowie says Chapman had tickets to the show beside John and Yoko, and the night following the murder he was confronted by three empty seats in the front row. Who knows? Whatever the case, Lennon and Bowie’s collaboration Fame takes on an eerie tone knowing Chapman held his gun, Valentine style, in his scrawny hands and tiny heart, and waited for Lennon to return in his limo before shooting him in the back.
“Fame, what you want is in your limo, Fame what you get is no tomorrow”.
But beautifully, it’s not always dark stuff than seems to push through the veil. Moments after Lennon was pronounced dead, Dr Lynne, who desperately cut open his chest to physically pump his heart with his hands recalls “All my Loving” came across the hospital speakers as he prepared to break the news to Yoko Ono.
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, Tomorrow I’ll miss you Remember I’ll always be true, And then while I’m away I’ll write home every day, And I’ll send all my loving to you…”
Try and listen to that and not cry.
To all those who were slaughtered by evil at the Bataclan, Rest in Peace. Know Everyone Says Hi. To those who lost loved ones at the Bataclan may you honour their lives through freedom and love. To the Eagles of Death Metal – Peace, Love and Life. And yes, you are right, Reverend Jesse “..a great reason why so many were killed is because so many people wouldn’t leave their friends…So many people put themselves in front of people.” That’s what real Saints looks like.
There is no greater love.
Speaking in tongues, synchronistic phenomenon, prophetic energies, symbolic mysteries, blackstars or white… whether any of this is real or not, well, it’s all pretty moot in the end.
Love trumps it all.
1 Corinthians 13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
“In the Villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle.”
Bowie Blackstar 2015
“I’ve got to do this,” [Bowie] says, pulling a shade down on the window. A ballpoint-penned star has been crudely drawn on the inside. Below it is the word “Aum.” Bowie lights a black candle on his dresser and immediately blows it out to leave a thin trail of smoke floating upward.” Rolling Stone 1976
Perhaps somewhere in the liminal spaces between Word on a Wing, Loving the Alien, Bowie’s Lets Dance film clip shot in Aboriginal Australia – where he feared that Grace would fall – and the anguish of a silent God on I Would be Your Slave lies Gurrumul, the blind seer.
Playing as part of Supersense, a festival that includes performances of Brian Eno’s music and John Cale, Gurrumul is something special.
“Aboriginal singer Gurrumul is a stunningly unique voice in the contemporary global landscape, and in this world premiere he pays tribute to the spiritual richness of north east Arnhemland and the gospel songs of his youth.As a child on Elcho Island, Gurrumul’s musical world was influenced not only by the traditional music of his clan but by the gospel hymns he heard at the local Methodist church. Now those songs are reimagined through the unique voice of one of our most treasured artists.Joined by a choir and expanding the sounds he heard as a boy, this concert is a deeply human encounter between cultures and across time.“There’s something preternaturally soothing about the voice of Gurrumul… His music is as approachable as it is otherworldly.”– The New York Times”
“David Bowie inhabits Carl Jung’s world of archetypes, reading and speaking of the psychoanalyst with a passion.” Tony Oursler 2013
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.
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
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).
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 for authenticity and wholeness. In this struggle, Bowie, the consummate dreamer, found a roadmap in the life of Jung.
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.
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 discussing ‘Oh! 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:
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.
Facinatingly, the nightmare inducing hallucinogenic hand reaching down from the cracked sky in Bowie’s lyrics darkly mirrors Michelangelo’s archetypal painting in the Sistene 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.
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
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, transference and countertransference 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)
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” (BewlayBrothers1971). 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.
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 sublimation/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)
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 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 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.
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 understoodas 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.
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, (J
ung 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, he creatively embodied one for our time.
Tanja Stark 2015
Arzy Shahar., Margitta Seeck, Stephanie Ortigue, Laurent Spinelli L and Olaf Blanke. “Induction of an Illusory Shadow Person.” Nature, 443 (2006): 287
Jung, Carl Gustav. “On the importance of the unconscious in psychopathology”, Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Vol. 3, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychological Types”. Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol 6, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Jung, Carl Gustav. “Archetypes of the collective unconscious.” Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 9, Part 1. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press, 1968.
Jung, Carl Gustav. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House, 1967.
Jung, Carl Gustav. (translation by Richard Francis Carrington Hull) “Alchemical Studies.” Collected Works of C.G. Jung. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Jung, Carl Gustav. Collected works of C.G. Jung. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
Jung, Carl Gustav. “Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy”, Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol 14, London: Routledge, 1963. <https://archive.org/details/collectedworksof92cgju> (11 November 2013).
Jung, Carl Gustav. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1933. (1955 ed.). Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Syzygy: Anima and Animus”, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol 9, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951. <http://archive.org/details/collectedworksof92cgju> (17 December 2013).
Meshberger, Frank. Lynn. “An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy”, Journal of the American Medical Association 264 (October 1990): 1837–41.
Mishima, Yukio. Spring Snow. New York: Random House, 2010.
Penfield, Wilder and Marshall Faulk Jr., “The insula. Further observations on its function’, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery”, Brain, 78 (1955): 445-471.
Penman, I. “The Resurrection of Saint Dave.” Esquire Magazine, October, 1995.
Petchkovsky, Leon., Micheal Petchkovsky, Phillip Morris,., Paul Dickson, Danielle Montgomery, Jonathan Dwyer, and Patrick Burnett. “fMRI responses to Jung’s Word Association Test: implications for theory, treatment and research”,Journal of Analytical Psychology, 58 (3, 2013): 409 .
[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.
Tanja Stark June 2015 [update: this paper was published by Bloomsbury Press, well prior to the release of Blackstar. I have been asked if I knew death was imminent when I wrote it and the answer is yes. How I knew is more complicated. ts 2018]
“Confront a corpse at least once” Bowie implored, “…the absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have” (Esquire 2004). His words accompanied a haunting photographic recreation by Steven Klein of Michelangelo’s Pieta in a prison cell, a strange androgynous figure draped like the lifeless body of Christ across Bowie’s lap while he made a Latin Benediction gesture with the ink stained fingers of his left hand [i]. A decade later, Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day contained more than just one cadaver; indeed the album dripped death like a bleeding beehive of blood, a honeycombed-catacomb of cryptic mystery, rage and resignation. This was no safe space for neophytes or necrophobes, but for those with the “terror of knowing”, bright light casts dark shadows and the eternal paradox lies in discerning which one is which. The Next Day ain’t rock ‘n roll, as much as art on suicide watch, with last observations taken at 9.25 [ii].
Death has been an enduring companion to Bowie from the beginning, giving creative form to that most existentialist Kierkegaardian obsession:
As soon as a human being is born, he begins to die. But the difference is that there are some people for whom the thought of death comes into existence with birth and is present to them in the quiet peacefulness of childhood and the buoyancy of youth; whereas others have a period in which this thought is not present to them until, when the years run out, the years of vigor and vitality, the thought of death meets them on their way. (Kierkegaard, 1844: 280)
Born in the shadows of World War 2, the first corpses emerged when Bowie was barely out of his teens. Amongst Bowie’s earliest songs was a murderous narrative about a child killer who kills a gravedigger (“Please, Mr. Gravedigger”, 1967), cannibalistic “Hungry Men” threatening mass extermination (David Bowie, 1967) and the heartbreakingly poignant “Conversation Piece”, the story of an intellectual who jumps despairingly from a bridge, a brilliant mind no compensation to the despair of loneliness [iii]. These songs mark the first taste of Bowie’s ongoing fascination with liminal spaces, control, consciousness and the extinguishment life, foreshadowing a lifetime of deathly intrigue that led inexorably to 1. Outside. The Ritualistic Art Murder of Baby Grace – a Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle (1995) and later, to The Next Day and the dark torment of “You feel So Lonely you Could Die” in 2013.
“My head’s full of murders where only killers scream” the tripped out singer confessed on 1970’s “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed”. It was on the same album he introduced us to “The Man Who Sold the World” who thrust Bowie deep into the mysteries of death and consciousness as he found himself amongst millions of undead in a song with echoes of Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince and the jazz standard “Nature Boy”; with their tales of enchanted wanderers, magical encounters and the revelation of wisdom[iv] (The Man who Sold the World, 1970).
On the apocalyptic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1972 Bowie was a “Rock and Roll Suicide”, a “leper messiah” resigned to sacrificial, (albeit hubristic) slaughter at the hands of ignorant masses. Two years later Diamond Dogs (1974) pushed into stranger territory. Melodramatically opening the album with the dystopian specter of Hunger City, its gruesome urban decay splattered with decomposing bodies “…and in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare…” it gave way, amid a primal, pulsating force of wailing guitar, to one of rock’s darker manifestos “…this ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide”. (“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent” pumped up on nihilistic hedonism, cultural cleansing had never sounded so damn sexy.) Conceived as an interpretation of Orwell’s 1949 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs hypnotically entranced us with fatalistic resignation on “We Are the Dead”: “Oh dress yourself my urchin one, for I hear them on the stairs / Because of all we’ve seen because of all we’ve said / We are the dead” – and reinforced our inevitable fate conjuring the macabre specter of death in the strangely shamanic funk rhythm of “The Chant of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family”.
Homicide and crucifixion continued to claw their way into the oeuvre wherever they could take hold, adding to the metaphorical death of love (“Up the Hill Backwards, 1980”), death of faith (“I Would be Your Slave” 2002), reason (“I’m Deranged” 1995) and identity (“Heat” 2013). In 1982, Bowie’s haunting rendition of Brechts The Drowned Girl evocatively conjured the viscerality of dead flesh decomposing in the river after suicide: “Once she had drowned and started her slow descent…Wreck and duckweed slowly increased her weight…Through her limbs, the cold-blooded fishes played…Once her pallid trunk had rotted beyond repair, It happened quite slowly that she gently slipped from God’s thoughts, First with her face, then her hands, right at the last with her hair Leaving those corpse-choked rivers just one more corpse”. Who can bear to be forgotten?
Even during his most commercially popular incarnation as the suave yellow-suited star of the Let’s Dance (1983) era, Bowie’s death complex never abated, that most commercial of albums masking dark references to spiritual struggle and death. Among the themes of colonialism, race, identity and morality, the albums iconic lyrics “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” also seem to recall Hans Christian Andersen’s tale TheRed Shoes [v] and the little girl vainly tempted to wear them only to find they could not be removed, dancing the wearer insane and separating her from God’s grace – “lets dance for fear your grace should fall” [vi]. In Andersens tale, the Holy Pictures on the church wall glared at the girl in divine judgment, a weight of condemnation echoed in “Ricochet” (1983) with its injunction to “…turn the Holy Pictures so they face the wall” amidst its spirit crushing lyrics and the “sound of the devil breaking parole”.“So you train by shadowboxing, search for the truth [vii]” Bowie had sung three years earlier on “Scream Like Baby” (1980). On the cover of Let’s Dance Bowie continued this fight with shadows and spiritual tricksters with “no sign of life…just the power to charm.”
Bowie’s aforementioned “Please Mr. Gravedigger” track is a significant marker of the symbolic centrality of death that permeates his career. In this strangely dramatised a Capella tune he sings as a child murderer haunting the churchyard where his victim is buried, planning in his world of twisted vengeance to kill the old gravedigger who dared snatch a locket from her grave. In this story of a murderer killing a thief (possibly set in the real West Norwood Cemetery, where V-1 bombs hit the chapel during World War Two), the bombing of the churchyard speaks of the death of the spiritual and the sacred, of memory and ritual; deathly layer upon deathly layer as fall dogs bombed the tombs.
There’s a little churchyard just along the way… tombstones, epitaphs, wreaths, flowers all that jazz / till the war came along and someone dropped a bomb on the lot / And in this little yard, there’s a little old man …He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves …Yes, Mr. GD, you see me every day, Standing in the same spot by a certain grave/ Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh so gay / And I was the wicked man who took her life away, …No, Mr. GD, you won’t tell / And just to make sure that you keep it to yourself / I’ve started digging holes myself, And this one here’s for you. (“Please Mr. Gravedigger”, David Bowie, 1967)
The song could almost be a creative interpretation of Carlos Schwabe’s [xiii] 1895 Symbolist painting La mort du fossoyeur – The Death of the Gravedigger – an evocative image of an old man cowering with his shovel inside a freshly dug grave while a dark angel of death coolly steals his soul. Indeed, his career so deeply aligns with the tradition and tone of the 19th Century symbolists and their mythopoeic fascination with mysticism, esoteric spirituality, mortality, ideals, dreams and symbols that it is easy to see synchronistic manifestation of their thematic concerns throughout his work, particularly in the quest to transcend duality – spirit/flesh, male/female, life/death – through the integration of polarities [ix].
The iconic cover of Diamond Dogs (1974) that showed a naked Bowie morphed with a dog, for instance, has curious parallels with Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff’s 1896 image of the hybrid Leopard Woman in “L’Art ou Des Caresses” or “The Caress” – a painting filled with erotic overtones, androgyny and hermetic symbolism. (Khnopff was a close collaborator with the poet Joséphin Péladan, grandmaster of the Rosicrucian Mystic Order of the Rose + Croix, a society exploring esoteric spirituality and ritual that had once fascinated Bowie). Painted by another Belgian artist, Guy Peellaert in 1974, both Bowie’s Dog-man and Khnopff’s Cat-woman are theriomorphic figures, human-animal hybrids that appear throughout history as symbols of mystery and magic. The androgynous figures in these images seem to reflect the symbolic conjunction of sexual opposites, evoking an unsettlingly seductive tension. Diamond Dogs was the first album on which Bowie utilized the chaos magician William Burroughs’ infamous cut-up method to allow for the unconscious creation of lyrics. When Bowie sang “Oh caress yourself my juicy” on “We are the Dead” one can almost imagine the sphinx in Khnopff’s “Caress” purring this to the youth with the magic staff.
19th Century Belgian Symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff’s 1896 painting L’Art ou Des Caresses contrasted with contemporary Belgium artist, Guy Pellart’s Diamond Dogs Cover eight decades later.
The fascination with the interior, unconscious world of dreams and ideas that arise and percolate in artists like Bowie – who deeply resonate with the ideas of Carl Jung (Stark, 2014) – often sees them drawn to and reflecting the themes of the Symbolists. When Bowie slipped in a reference to Belgian Symbolist poet and writer Georges Rodenbach (who wrote of murder and melancholy, doppelgängers and death) [x] on 2013’s The Next Day album, he gave an unmistakable acknowledgement to this arts movement with its strong parallels to the content and processes of his creative life.
We Need to Talk About David
There is a deliberate dissonance permeating Bowie’s reappearance in 2013. The Next Day brims with dead men hanging, walking, packing guns and Bibles, surrounded by swirling ideas of death and resurrection, possession, deception, judgment and retribution. It’s Death as catharsis, as symbol, as mystery and revenge, but so often wrapped in beautiful sounds that belie their dark content: such as the disturbing “Valentine’s Day”, a sway-along song about a deluded shooter who has confided in the singer his dreams of massacre and dominion. “Valentine told me who’s to go / Feelings he treasured most of all / the teachers and the football stars … Valentine told me how he feels / If all the world were under his heels / or stumbling through the mall … It’s in his scrawny hands, It’s in his icy heart” (Valentines Day, The Next Day, 2013).
It is not the first time Bowie has sung of the macabre, visceral reality of slaughter and assassination. On 1970’s “Running Gun Blues” (The Man Who Sold the World) for example, Bowie sings as a Vietnam veteran who unleashes his violent demons upon society on his return: “… the peacefuls stopped the war / Left generals squashed and stifled … I’ll slip out again tonight cause they haven’t taken back my rifle / For I promote oblivion And I’ll plug a few civilians I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead I’ll break them gooks, I’ll crack their heads I’ll slice them till they’re running red”. He soaked up vicarious TV violence on Tin Machine’s “Video Crime” (Tin Machine, 1989): “… Trash Time Bundy, Death Row Chic (chop it up) Haunt this street from half past ten … Blood on video-video crime … Late night cannibal-cripples decay, Just can’t tear my eyes away”.
1987’s “Day In Day Out“ (Never Let Me Down) culminates in a woman contemplating her own gun crime, worn down by abuse and injustice before a mysterious angelic intervention shoots her down instead. “She’s gonna take her a shotgun – Pow, spin the grail spin the drug, She’s gonna make them well aware she’s an angry gal” Bowie sings as the film clip shows him playing a ‘headless’ guitar-as-gun as he would do again in the “Valentines Day” film clip 25 years later.
[5/8/15 Update: see Rolling Stones 1976 intriguing Cameron Crowe interview with an archetypally inflated and unbalanced Bowie: ” “I have this dream. I’d like to host a satellite television show and invite all the biggest bands onto one stage. Then I’d come out with a great big wheelbarrow of machine guns and ask them, ‘Now how many of you are gonna do anything? How many are going to pick up a gun and how many of you are gonna cling to your guitars?'”]
Death psychopathically stalked Bowie in the video to 1997’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” (Earthling) where Trent Reznor, an assassin with spiritually dark undertones, relentlessly pursues a paranoid Bowie through the streets with a virtual gun, before finally appearing in the guise of Christ on his way to crucifixion in a strange Mexican Day of the Dead like procession. But perhaps the most cryptic corpse was on 1995’s 1. Outside: the Ritualistic Art Murder of Baby Grace – a Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, a conceptual detective mystery set in the future where murder is a legitimate form of artistic expression. Woven through song, video and liner notes, Bowie confronted his audience with bizarre themes of detachment, derangement and bodily desecration, decapitated minotaurs and mannequins, dark pagan rituals and Bacchan last suppers:
“The Limbs of Baby were then severed from the torso [xi]…The limbs and their components were then hung upon the splayed web, slug-like prey of some unimaginable creature [xii]. The torso,by means of its bottom-most orifice, had been placed on a small support fastened to a marble base…It was definitely murder – but was it art?” (Diary of Nathan Adler – 1. Outside 1995.)
Bowie would describe the macabre project as an exploration of society’s spiritual hunger for meaning and authentic inner spirituality. “The one continuum that is throughout my writing… is a real simple, spiritual search,” he confessed (Bowie in Ill, 1997). Bowie’s search, however, was hardly simple, as many have pondered (see Cinque, 2013; Dery, 2010; Savage, 2010; Ball, 2013) and the album brought his God and Death complexes to the fore. On Outside it appeared he was ritually dismembering old religious strictures and social restraint, metaphorically burning them to ashes, singing of “a fantastic death abyss, It’s the hearts filthy lesson”. Amongst the gruesome layers, Baby Grace arguably alluded to the Holy Child of grace, who own body was also violently impaled through crucifixion.
In an article by Ian Penman, “The Resurrection of Saint Dave” for Esquire Magazine (October 1995), Bowie said:
My input revolved around the idea of ritual art—what options were there open to that kind of quasi-sacrificial blood-obsessed sort of art form? And the idea of a neo-paganism developing-especially in America-with the advent of the new cults of tattooing and scarification and piercings and all that … people have a real need for some spiritual life and I think there’s great spiritual starving going on. There’s a hole that’s been vacated by an authoritative religious body—the Judeo-Christian ethic doesn’t seem to embrace all the things that people actually need to have dealt with in that way[xiii]—and it’s sort of been left to popular culture to soak up the leftover bits like violence and sex.
Bowie’s linking of violence, spiritual belief and death, and the lack of contemporary, culturally resonant frameworks to meaningfully process these powerful energies explored on Outside is intriguing, particularly when considering why people are attracted to violent expressions of belief, such as “Islamic State”. (Bowie had previously explored the ancient clash of religious ideology in his 1985 song “Loving the Alien”, singing of terror and torture from the crusades through to modern times: “Watching them come and go, the Templars and the Saracens …Torture comes and torture goes …terror in the best laid plans…Christians and the unbelievers, hanging by the cross and nail”).
Grace’s corpse on Outside seemed the end result from the convergence, subversion and dysfunctional channeling of these primal drives. Bowie sang in several guises across the 1995 album, from Detective Nathan Adler, who had undertones of a cryptic “Grand Inquisitor” figure (Dostoyevsky, 1880), [xiii] to murder suspect, Leon Blank, a reversal of Noel, herald of emptiness, a Holy Fool cutting esoteric zeroes into the fabric of time and perceiving hidden mysteries through “These Architects Eyes”, a name for God in the mystery traditions. [xiv] Deliberately ambiguous, the project possibly intimated the Detective himself could be the Minotaur serial killer who murdered Baby Grace, a theological implication perhaps cryptically reflected in “The Next Day” single and film clip with its contempt for exploitative religious leaders who “work with Satan while they dress like saints” and corrupt institutions of power that exploit and destroy the Grace they should protect and illuminate.
Shadows of The Next Day
For several years prior and subsequent to the release of The Next Day in 2013, Bowie remained as silent as Rosenbach, giving no public interviews or appearances to promote his latest work. It was unsurprising then that like some virtual vivisection, Bowie’s digital resurrection was forensically picked apart for meaning in symbol and verse in the notable absence of a real body. The iconoclastic title track “The Next Day” which emerged like a nine-inch nail to the eye was carved up in all its histrionic glory as many conducted spiritual autopsies on the controversial film clip temporarily banned by YouTube. Yet, there are also very interesting subtle visual nuances in the iconography and cryptic images around Bowie’s latest incarnation. For those whose imaginations are “not quite dying”, it seems Bowie has been perpetually confronting us with the mysteries of mortality and death even in the still photography
The first photograph to appear in 2013 was “Three Men in Hats”, a black and white portrait by Jimmy King of Bowie seated under an earlier Terry O’Neill portrait of the artist as a young man, back to back with synchronistic beat poet and chaos magician William S. Burroughs.
It was Burroughs who infamously coined the (literally) seminal phrase the Thin White Duke Rope in his 1959 book Naked Lunch that would morph into one of Bowie’s more sexually alluring yet emotionally detached personae. The stark black and white portrait portrayed Bowie presiding intensely from an oroborous ring of steel, hinting at mysteries of circularity and prescience, casting shadows between two columns, recalling the two pillars Jachin and Boaz from Solomon’s Temple seen in Khnopff’s “The Caress” (Fig.2) that feature heavily in esoteric mystery traditions (2 Chronicles 3:15-17). The three heads evoke associations with three-headed ‘Chronos’, or ‘Father Time’ of Ancient Greece mythically connected with the birth of Chaos, the Prima Materia and magical semen, something Bowie may have synchronistically alluded to as he infamously sang ‘Time… falls wanking to the floor’ (“Time” Aladdin Sane, 1973).
The image emerged with the launch of “Where are We Now” (The Next Day), the ghosts of Bowie’s Berlin bringing the circularity of his life to the fore. Released on his 66th birthday, it always seemed as interesting that the “… man lost in time near KaDeWe, just walking the dead” shared his birth date with Stephen Hawking, that intellectual master of chaos that is quantum theory, as much as he does with the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. The Tony Oursler-directed film clip was a cornucopia of archetypal imagery, the double-headed mannequin suggesting the sacred marriage of opposites, Heiros Gamos; the diamond of the Self, a Philosophers Stone. Sun, Rain, Fire, You, Me – the alchemic mysteries of the inner journey literally spelled out on screen.
Shortly after the release of the 2013 album, another fascinating image by Jimmy King appeared, this time taken in the Magic Shop studio in New York where the album was covertly recorded.
It’s a stunning portrait of a glowing, white shirted Bowie full of vitality, standing over the ground mixing controls. But this image too, continues the theme of the eternal cycle of life and death, for if one looks closely behind David’s left shoulder there is a ghostly pareidolic image of a skeleton formed by the grain of the wooden door, Shroud of Turin-like, with a claddagh crown. It brings to mind Bowie’s iconic rendition of Belgian Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’ the night he killed Ziggy – a song sung by one who lives in the knowledge of mortal fragility and the other world behind the door:
My death waits like a bible truth At the funeral of my youth … My death waits like a witch at night / As surely as our love is bright / Let’s not think about the passing time…But what ever lies behind the door / There is nothing much to do, Angel or devil, I don’t care / For in front of that door, there is you…My death waits there among the leaves / In magician’s mysterious sleeves / Rabbits and dogs and the passing time (My Death, 1973)
In light of “The Next Day” film clip, with its contempt for duplicitous religion, the specter of a Holy Relic in this photograph is as elegant as the camera angle that creates the illusion Bowie holds a Faustian homunculus in his hands as time itself, symbolized by his watch, disappears up a ‘magician’s mysterious sleeves.’’
The Angels of Life and Death, that most classic duo of Symbolist iconography, recur throughout the decades in Bowie’s work, foreshadowing liminal spaces and transitions; New Angels of Promise, Angels of Lead, Angels in these Golden Years, Angels for Life, Angels that have gone. In “Look Back in Anger” (Lodger, 1979) the Angel of Death seemingly comes to Bowie, heralding his mortal end: “You know who I am,” he said / The speaker was an angel / He coughed and shook his crumpled wings …”It’s time we should be going”/ Waiting so long, I’ve been waiting so, waiting so …” But the Angel of Death didn’t take Bowie in 1979; the visitation was yet another dispassionate reminder of the inevitability of his eventual demise. If a deal had been struck, someone across the years apparently reneged on the terms.
In “Bring Me The Disco King” (Reality, 2003) Bowie laments his slow drawn-out ending, addressing one who had lead him through trails of money and sex to an impotent dark ending. It was arguably the same crumpled winged Angel of “Look Back in Anger” watching over a life reduced to a worthless crumpled paper in “Bring Me The Disco King”: “You promised me the ending would be clear / You’d let me know when the time was now / Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door / Stab me in the dark, let me disappear … Life wasn’t worth the balance or the crumpled paper it was written … Don’t let me know we’re invisible … Spin-offs with those who slept like corpses … Close me in the dark, let me disappear / Soon there’ll be nothing left of me / Nothing left to release …”(“Bring Me The Disco King”, Reality, 2003).
A hauntingly beautiful film clip[xv] accompanies the track; Bowie standing over his lifeless body in a dark twisted forest after a desperate search for water. Often mystically associated with the spirit (living water, baptism, rebirth, chaos) this quest for water is a recurring symbol for spiritual sustenance or thirst in his oeuvre, a theme exemplified in “Looking for Water” (Reality, 2003): “Take my hand as we go down and down / Leave it all behind nothing will be found / I’m looking for water”[xvi] (2003), in the frantic search by Bowie’s tiny Glass Spiders for spiritual nourishment in the face of maternal abandonment – “Gone, Gone the water’s all gone / Mummy come back ’cause the water’s all gone / If your mother don’t love you then the riverbed might” (“Glass Spider”, 1987) – and Mishima’s black dog that blocked the flow of the waterfall in “Heat” (The Next Day, 2013) – a stunning metaphor for the dark psyche that can impede spiritual nourishment.
Bowie’s search for water in the chthonic earth is a stark counterpoint to his ungrounded space jaunts. Frustratingly, the water he uncovers quickly transforms into a thousand fractured “Reflectors” – a mirrored disco ball, its shards of light tauntingly hinting at gnostic release of the pneumatic sparks of life… but not quite. It is a concept that will reappear visually and conceptually a decade later in his collaboration with Arcade Fire[xvii], another band navigating the turbulent seas of mystic spirituality.
Intriguingly, in the closing moments of the film clip to “Bring Me The Disco King” we see Bowie in a recording studio, candidly remarking on an apparent paranormal experience around death, with knowing assurance: “…you hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.” **
There’s a distinct familiarity as he speaks of Death as a doorway, evoking Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and ends, change and transition, the keeper of gates, doorways and the passage of time, hauntingly evoked in King’s image. Bowie and the twin-faced god looking eternally to the future and the past seem well acquainted. Yet, as dark as Bowie’s death complex seems, swirling with fears of being forgotten and invisible, perhaps the enduring presence of death can be as much a force for liberation as melancholic burden. According to Carlos Castaneda, the famous 20th century anthropologist turned mystic, Yaqui Seers believe that to fully grasp life one must live knowing death stands eternally behind your left shoulder, only ever a backwards glance away (Castaneda, 1968). The skeletal apparition of Death on the Magic Studio Door behind Bowie’s own left shoulder seems a profoundly uncanny manifestation of this precept.
The haunting shadows continued in the still images. Jimmy King’s bizarrely striking Silver (death) Mask portrait created for NME conjured up Bowie’s early mime performance “The Mask” (from the 1969 promotional film Love You till Tuesday), the tale of an actor who dons a persona for his audience until it subsumes his underlying self, smothering his identity with its unrestrained dominance and kills him. This reference seemed to signal the enduring struggle with persona and shadow seen in his creative work, foreshadowing archetypal manifestations such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke so seemingly disintegrated they split off and took on lives of their own. Inside the magazine, a dimly lit Bowie stood beside a material veil, the hint of a negative image evoking a ghostly skull behind his left shoulder. Once more Bowie was accompanied by an ethereal doppelgänger, staring back from the pages like a glitch in the material matrix. [xviii]
A Corpse Hanging from a Beam
Undoubtedly one of the most disturbing corpses in Bowie’s recent work is the one hanging from a beam in the vicious invocation of suicide found on “You Feel so Lonely You Could Die” (The Next Day, 2013). With chilling contempt Bowie, possibly singing as a dark Angel of Death, seems to be sociopathically willing a soul into the abyss, his dark, wolverine lyrics cloaked in a disarmingly accessible sheep’s-clothing ballad:
I see you as a corpse, hanging from a beam / I could read you like a book, I can feel you falling / I hear you moaning in your room, / Oh, see if I care, Oh, please, please make it soon / Walls have got you cornered / You’ve got the blues my friend / And people don’t like you / But you will leave without a sound, without an end / Oblivion shall own you / Death alone shall love you / I hope you feel so lonely you could die (“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” 2013)
His swinging corpse brings to mind yet another 19th century Symbolist, Belgium painter James Ensor, whose creative expression abounds with the same archetypal images that fascinate Bowie: masks and skeletons, mannequins, pierrots, corpses, death, Christ and religious iconography. In Ensor’s “Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man”, painted in 1891, Death itself is split as “ever-circling skeletal” figures fight for “… a corpse hanging from a beam” while a crowd of grotesque archetypal theatrical characters watch fixated from behind opening doors. As Bowie had so assuredly observed at the end of “Bring Me the Disco King”: “…that’s the sound of death … doors opening”.
Significantly, Ensor’s corpse is marked with the word Civet – a dish of stewed Hare. With hares / rabbits a traditional symbol of Easter, scholars have noted Ensor was associating this corpse both with the persecuted Christ (Acts 10:39 ‘’[Christ slain] and hung on a tree], and the artist himself (Vervoort, 1990). Ensor’s convergence of Christ/Hare/Corpse symbolism throws up interesting comparisons with Bowie’s most recent corpses and mirrors the Ziggy/Hare/Corpse dynamic seen in the incarnation and crucifixion of “leper messiah” Ziggy Stardust in his Yamamoto jumpsuit emblazoned with a white hare [xix].
In one way, “You feel so Lonely You Could Die” could be the tortuously dark shadow to Ziggy’s “Rock n Roll Suicide” forty years earlier, whose passionate declarations of support against the horror of loneliness, alienation and abandonment in 1972 were the counterpoint to the tormented, lacerating voices coldly spat out in the later song:
Oh no love! you’re not alone / You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair / You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care / Oh no love! you’re not alone No matter what or who you’ve been / No matter when or where you’ve seen / All the knives seem to lacerate your brain I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain / You’re not alone Just turn on with me and you’re not alone … Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful [“Rock n Roll Suicide”, 1972]
All who have stared into the existential abyss of self-annihilation have heard the tormenting voice in “You Feel so Lonely You Could Die” or the baying crowd taunting the suicidal in “Jump They Say” [xx] (Black Tie White Noise, 1993) desperately craving the salvation offered in “Rock n Roll Suicide”.But things may not be this simple when attempting to discern the difference between incarnated projection and spiritual direction. What if aspects of ourselves, like some of Bowie’s personae, need to be integrated or killed in order for us to be released or resurrected? Is it co-incidental the abandoned costume beneath Ensors’s hanged man includes a white mask as Bowie had adorned in 1969 and 2013?
Curiously, the corpse Bowie sees “hanging from the beam” in 2013 was lyrically prefigured by punk band Scaterd Few in 1990’s “Kill the Sarx”[xxi] singing of Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust. “Like Weird and Gilley wasting away, In the trance of their chameleon’s Messiahcal gaze / The spirit is willing the flesh is still weak / Corpses lay rotting corpses still reek … Kill the sarx, Kill the sarx, Hang him from your rafters” (Kill the Sarx, 1990). Three years later Bowie reflected:
“There was a theory that one creates a doppelganger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about” (Bowie, Arena 1993).
In this way, the instinct behind the carnage is an attempt to manage powerful shadow forces before they subsume the light both on the personal and collective level. Could the corpse hanging from a beam in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” who “stole their trust, their moon, their sun” – images with archetypally spiritual and hermetic connotations – then arguably be representative of the shadow self, as well as the deceptive figures in “The Next Day”?
Quid Est Veritas?
Years earlier, Bowie had played Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ” a movie exploring the dilemma of discerning truth when darkness masquerades as light. Handing Christ over to his own crucifixion, his character asks Christ to perform a miracle, enquiring whether this is “good magic or bad magic?”. After a lifetime of shadowboxing, Bowie was still exploring spiritual dialectics, closing his 2013 album with one of the most tortuous songs he has written. “Then we saw Mishima’s dog / Trapped between the rocks / Blocking the waterfall / The songs of dust / The world would end / And night was always falling / The peacock in the snow / My father ran the prison… I can only love you by hating him more / That’s not the truth, it’s too big a word / He believed that love is theft … And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am … But I am a seer, I am a liar …” (Heat, The Next Day, 2013).
It’s a song that seems to come from a lifetime staring deep into the abyss “… waiting for something, looking for someone, Is there no reason? Have I stared too long?” the lyric from “The Rays” 2002 echoing symbolist Odilon Redon’s 1896 painting “St Antoine: What Is the Point of All This? The Devil: There Is No Point!” It’s the death of surety, the “Quid est veritas?” – what is truth? – Pilate remarks confronting Christ in the Gospels, “the horror of knowing” that perceptions may only be projections, reflections, or self-delusory deception.
It’s the seer’s curse, that lies can bleed truth; the gnostic dilemma, trapped in the black iron prison of matter by the wrong god; or is that yet another illusion? Its a Mobius strip of confusion as many see symbols but read them so very differently.[xxii]. Which brings us to yet another intriguing Jimmy King image of Bowie overlooking New York like Mishima’s peacock in the snow.
He salutes, fingers hinting, again, of the Latin Benediction gesture he displayed in his prison cell Pieta. Performed with the right hand, this iconic gesture is associated with the Papal Blessing seen in religious paintings and statues; performed with the left, it can be indicative of the Left Hand Path of esotericism that so intrigued Bowie’s portrait companion, William Burroughs. Inverting the image his scarf apophenically functions as a hangman’s noose emblazoned with Rorschach-like inkblot skulls – an ever-circling skeletal family around his neck – an archetypal Hanged Man swirling with themes of death and resurrection.
Synchronistic shadows often seem to swirl around Bowie, but they are only one part of the whole. Look again at King’s balcony photograph searching for light and, with a dash of imagination, it seems the angels haven’t gone. Death may lurk behind Bowie’s left shoulder, but in King’s image a serendipitous snowflake gives the illusion of an angel on his right one – a tiny “word on a wing [xxiii]”.
As Fyodor Karamazov wondered: “Was it symbolic of something, or what?”[xxiv]
Everybody gets got
“Seek and you will find” promises the old spiritual principle [xxv]. If we look for death we see her everywhere and Bowie is confronting us, as she confronts him, with all her guises. Death stalks us all and “everyone gets got” in the end (“I’d Rather Be High”, 2013). But Bowie’s corpses are but one polarity, for where there is shadow, there is also light. Where there is crucifixion there can also be resurrection.
In Bowie’s tumultuous dance with religion, death and mysticism, his art wrestles with the possibility, and impossibility, of worlds and concepts beyond the material veil. As Saint-Exupéry’s fox in “The Little Prince” wisely observes “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye”. When the ever-circling skeletons approach and Death finally opens the door, may the wisdom of mystic St John of the Cross transcend angels and devils, and in the evening of life may we be judged on love alone.
Tanja StarkThis essay is published in “Enchanting David Bowie : Space Time Body Memory” edited by Toija Cinque, Christopher Moore, and Sean Redmond and published by Bloomsbury Press 2015 – details below.
Ball, Norm. Red Book Red Sail, http://redbookredsail.wordpress.com, 2013 (*I am indebted to Norman Ball, with whom i have often thrashed about ideas around theology and philosophy. It was Norm who directed me to Bowie’s comments on Death and the Supernatural at the end of ‘Bring Me the Disco King’ in light of my ideas on death and doorways.)
Bowie, David. Interview by Tony Parsons, Arena Magazine, Spring/Summer 1993
[i] Recalling the poisoned, stained fingers of the monks in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, (1980) who worked on forbidden manuscripts.
[ii]Time he’s waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / His script is you and me, boy …Oh well I look at my watch, it says 9:25 and I think Oh God I’m still alive (‘Time’, Aladdin Sane, 1973)
[iii] “I took this walk to ease my mind / to find out what’s gnawing at me / wouldn’t think to look at me, that I’ve spent a lot of time in education / It all seems so long ago / I’m a thinker, not a talker, I’ve no-one to talk to, anyway… And the world is full of life / Full of folk who don’t know me …And my hands shake, my head hurts, my voice sticks inside my throat I’m invisible and dumb / And no-one will recall me” [‘Conversation Piece’, 1967]
[iv] Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella “The Little Prince” (Saint-Exupéry and Howard 2000) and “Nature Boy” – a Jazz standard from 1948, covered by Bowie in 2001 – are two tales of mysterious encounters between enchanted wanderers and wise strangers that seem to have some overlap with the concepts in “The Man Who Sold the World” . The magical Little Prince from another planet who falls to Earth on a curious search, seeking water (a spiritual metaphor) and wisdom, learning the mysteries of life, love and death also parallels Bowie’s far more detached character in “The Man who fell to Earth”  – an alien on a quest for water. The lyrics of “Nature Boy” too, speak of a strange enchanted boy wandering afar till “one magic day He passed my way, and while we spoke of many things, fools and kings this he said to me / the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
[v] Kate Bush also sang of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale on “The Red Shoes” in 1993. Her film clip features Lindsay Kemp, Bowie’s (and Bush’s) early mime teacher as a demonic trickster; a cautionary tale about the seductive “power to charm” of the dark side and the heavy price one can pay for dancing with the devil. Note the Papal Red Slippers Bowie dons in the Pieta image.
[vi] Despite severing her own legs to stop the red shoes dancing, the dismembered limbs in Anderson’s tale continued their cursed dance, blocking the little girl from getting “…to the church on time”[vi], – a concept referenced in “Modern Love”, leaving her alone, pleading for mercy.
[vii] “Scream Like a Baby”, [Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, RCA, 1980]
[xiii] Almost a homonym for CoCo Schwabe, Bowie’s long term friend and assistant.
[x] Rodenbach’s opus was the novel Bruges de Mort, a tale of death, melancholia, and a fatal obsession with a doppelganger that results in a deranged murder – all themes touched upon by Bowie in his work.
[xi] Echoing the severing of the legs that wore the cursed Red Shoes in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.
[xii] Does Outside’s unimaginable creature overlap with 1987’s Glass Spider? “…A glass-like spider / having devoured its prey it would drape the skeletons over its web in weeks creating a macabre shrine of remains … One could almost call it an altar.“ [Glass Spider, 1987]. Interestingly, Bowie had once referred to his Glass Spiders as Jungian, mother figures.
[xiii] See Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from his novel The Brothers Karamazov.
[xiv] While the song cites famous building architects The Great Architect – is often a reference to God in mystery and masonic traditions etc.
[xiv] The original film clip from the Reality promotional media suite.
[xv] The Old Testatment also speaks of Hagar desperately ‘looking for water’ for her dying son Ishmael, Islamic patriarch.
[xvi] The film clip to both songs feature black and white imagery of the woods at night, fractured pieces of mirrors and disco balls scattering rays of light, and hints at conceptual ideas of gnostic mysteries, psyche reflections, shadows and paradox. The singers blackened eyes also mirror the blackened eyes of the Pieta corpse on Bowie’s lap discussed earlier.
[xvii] recalling the Kirlian ‘energy’ photography that once fascinated the Duke, featured in the Station to Station tour material, and again in the film clip to “Seven Years in Tibet”.
[xix] Animals traditionally thought to be hermaphradites.
[xx] “…. My friend don’t listen to the crowd / They say ‘Jump’ / Got to believe somebody / Got to believe.” [Jump They Say, 1992]. Said to be influenced by his brother’s suicide, the song has interesting parallels to Satan tempting Christ to throw himself from the temple found in the New Testament. Death and God appear once again.
[xxii] Bowie may be “a seer” and “a liar” but perhaps some of the tumult in Heat is in part, rare confirmation of Picasso’s intriguing observation, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” (Picasso “Picasso Speaks,” in The Arts, 1923).
[xxiii]“Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing…does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things? [“Word on a Wing” Station to Station 1975]. Bowie has referred to this song as a psychological salvation that emerged amidst a very turbulent and dark time.
[xxiv] See Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from his novel The Brothers Karamazov. [xxv] Luke 11 v 9