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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/24/21

Book Review: Bowie

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The Man Who Fell to Earth and Kept Falling

by John Kendall Hawkins

OR Books, 185 pages, P: $17, E:$10/

I first truly encountered David Bowie and all his earnest inauthenticities back in my madcap year of 1985. I'd closed out my collegiate career by winning a philosophy prize and a poetry prize, beaming at my first published poems, but instead of cashing in on this cache of success by accepting one of the several full scholarship offers from first and second tier post-graduate institutions, I backed away from the limelight of new, promising challenges that awaited me in Boston and Manhattan, and instead took a lesser though still-substantial offer from Renssalaer Polythechnic Institute in Troy, NY, to pursue a master of science in philosophy. And all because I was in love with a beautiful dark virgin of considerable brilliance who was studying journalism somewhat down the road, in Amherst. And she loved Bowie, the way I loved her.

On the many weekends that I would visit her that fall, driving the scenic old country roads from Troy to Amherst, leaves turning colors, heart palpitating, loins ever-aching, I would arrive at her door like Dante emerging into Paradise, and Marisa's room-mate would slam shut her books and emphatically exit stage right, and Marisa and I would kiss, our lips two rubber dinghies in a choppy sea of passion, and one thing wouldn't lead to another, and next thing I knew she was showing me new shopping, pants and a shirt she'd bought me, which she was already hurrying me to change into, her fingers re-coifing my hair, which had lain straight and limp all week among all the geeky Trojan technologists. And from the cassette player came David Bowie singing, "Blue Jean." And my sweet West African ventriloquist would pull me up to dance, laughing at my stiff hips and wooden shoulders. And when Bowie sang, "Won't somebody send me," I knew just what he meant.

But I had a different take on Bowie back in Troy. I was lonely beyond comprehension, a Bowie Hamlet too frequently ruminating on the Everlasting's injunction, often soused by mid-day, sitting in a booth alone in the student center, MTV's carnival of sights and sounds on the large screen, molten mozzarella from a pizza slice creeping down my chin, all around me the shop talk of engineers, me reading and pondering poems by Louis Hammer, my professor, from his Book of Games, poems like:

See if you can play the hero / it is the game of dropping / off the skyrocket of courage / and landing / with your head between your knees

Troy for me was like Albany depicted in William Kennedy's Ironweed - bleak, cold, dark, the things of life holding on by a thread. The songs of Madonna were ubiquitous and seemed to sometimes physically occupy the air. In snow squalls I would walk the alien streets near campus listening on my Walkman to John Lennon's "God" over and over. At a post-grad student gathering, I'd met Youssef, a gentle Pakistani fellow, and we hit it off and would hook up a couple nights a week at a working class bar that sold cheap pitchers of beer, an angry blue lighted place whose jukebox seemingly featured George Thoroughgood's "I Drink Alone" on a loop. And Youssef, a nuclear scientist hoping to bring home Bomb plans, would use me as a sounding board; "You Americans," he'd say, "want to blow up the whole whorled," and we'd drain another glass or three, heads hung. And I'd muddle through my phenomenology studies, my Kuhn and Ellul and Merlieu-Ponty.

The philosophy department had a weak moral conscience, staffed by Buddhist geeks and poets, specializing in producing hand-wrung cautionary theses too late to matter. And then the Challenger exploded over and over in replay on the big screen, pre-empting the MTV (was it David Lee Roth singing "Just A Gigolo"?), and the shop talk turned to cause and effect, a buzz of "O" rings.

And amid the clamor for answers I yearned for Marisa. I went to a phone and called her and proposed and we negotiated a minimally acceptable ring for her finger. The next day I went to a dumpy little jewelry shop in Troy and spent the remainder of my assistanceships (I had a TA and an RA) on an expensive little gold circle, with sparkle, a Nibelungen wouldn't have trifled with.

A couple weeks later, I packed up and moved to Amherst, I sat before the UMass philosophy department head coifed and dressed like Aladdin Sane, talking Kantian ethics, eager to transfer, and he listened like a pimp auditioning a new stable pony, probing, visibly risibly, and I never heard back. Perhaps I was a one trick pony. But, it didn't matter; I had Marisa, so long as I was Bowie.

Well, of course, the '80s were a long time ago, and Marisa has long since moved on to better baubles, re-married to an airline pilot of Greek ancestry, named, as I recall, Mr. Eaton Awfullotoffellfalas, and they had boys, Marisa was now kept, a soccer mum, wings clipped, her man all Sinatra, no Bowie he. While it would be cheap fun to further describe how my life went forward from Marisa into a phantasmagoria of switch-back misadventures and astonishing wayfaring, stuff that would take Homer's breath away, I offer only that I have weathered all storms, certainly worse for the wear, pounded by circumstance at times like a Looney Tunes speedbag, I have reached a phase of my life wherein I am at peace with my alienation, having long since turned "to face the strange."

David Bowie might never have been any more relevant to me again than Bob Dylan is, a singer of whom I might once have said, like a latter day Prufrock, "I have measured out my life with Dylan tunes." But then the other day I came across a book by Simon Critchley, a philosophy columnist for the New York Times, who had put out a book called, aptly and simply enough, Bowie. And all the old doubts and desires have returned, but now there's no brilliant dark virgin waiting for me; the baubles have long ago been hocked.

Critchley's little biography (a mere 185 pages) of the pop iconoclast is brilliant in its analysis and utterly engaging in its personal intersections with the singer's lyrics, art and philosophy over a period roughly half a century long. Like many of Dylan's fans, Critchley has been on the Bowie train through the many hills and valleys of Bowie's long dazed journey into night, and into its many dawns.

For those of a certain age (and I count myself one), whose lifespans have encompassed all the traumas, turmoils and ch-ch-changes of the last 50 years, beginning with the Kennedy assassination and leading, in seemingly ever rapid succession, to a world conditioned by the Internet of Things and the quest for the Singularity, the shedding of all the emperor's old clothes that leaves us with our chilling naked data bits exposed, David Bowie is an ideal avatar to reflect that cumulative zeitgeist.

And though Critchley certainly has the credentials and tools to have put Bowie under an academic microscope, with all manner of technical textual analysis, he wisely chooses to keep it personal, becoming in the process his own operant under scrutiny, vis-à-vis the Bowie influence.

For Critchley, and for many of Bowie's aesthetes, the artist is all about the contingencies of identity. I say 'aesthetes', as opposed to mere fans, because I want to argue the notion that many of his followers are not merely passive consumers but interactive participants in his iconoclastic performing artistry. Naturally, as psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva and others have demonstrated, identity is at the heart of human being, from the mythopoesis of our semiotic beginnings to that collective of compromises and politics that make up the social order and all its connective symbols.

One might very effectively argue that until the emergence of post-modernism in the mainstream, especially after World War II, the integrity of individual identity was tied up in the idealism implied by absolute structures and systemic order, be they the implicit historical stability of Judeo-Christian values or the egalitarian ethos of Democratic Republicanism, to take just two examples. But the deconstructions of post-modernism, applied across the vast apparati of orderly things and states, has produced a fragmentation and relativism that has undermined the symbolic order and left the 'common understanding' of values in a shambles.

The world no longer means the way it used to mean, alienation is rife, and the semiotic realm has been breached and co-opted by the manipulators of desire who promise order and meaning where there is none.

For sure, David Bowie is just a pop star, too. But then most people are pop stars in their leanings more than they are Rene Descartes in their thinking. In other words, unless even progressives are willing to argue a privileged place for intellectualism and its elite codes, then such pop stars must be seen as every bit as efficacious as some Socrates or Marx, at least in the practical realm where real behavior takes place.

And in this context, Bowie has proven to be an effective messenger/avatar for not only the disaffected, the gender benders and the strange, but for a whole era marked by alienation. As Critchley puts it, "Bowie spoke to the weirdos and the freaks. But it turned out that there were a lot of us. It left you wondering: who exactly were the insiders?" Well, it now seems clear those insiders are the technologists at the reins of our collective fate.

In such a psycho-social milieu it is difficult to be 'original' or authentic, because the last frontier of colonization is selfhood; we are born with claims already staked, by unseen others, to our deepest desires. It is only in the manifestations of art that we can begin to comprehend the linkage and our chains. As Critchley puts it:

"Art's ­filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion. Bowie's world is like a dystopian version of The Truman Show, the sick place of the world that is forcefully expressed in the ruined, violent cityscapes of "Aladdin Sane" and "Diamond Dogs"

Such confrontation or shock treatment is reminiscent of Antonin Artaud's requirements for The Theatre of Cruelty, where the audience itself must be viscerally roused past its masochistic accommodations of master narrative subjugation.

I own that I did not come to this understanding of Bowie's art immediately or obviously, and not until a few hard years after Marisa and I had parted ways. I was taking a university course called Scientific Romanticism, which featured well-known writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Olaf Stapledon - all of them dealing with aspects of alterity - and a writer I'd never heard of before, Walter Tevis.

One doesn't have to read too far into Tevis' The Man Who Fell to Earth to realize that Thomas Jerome Newton, the novel's alien protagonist, more than adequately matches Bowie's 'Space Oddity' persona. It's uncanny, actually. Consider Tevis' descriptions of Newton:

He had smooth skin and a boyish face -- but the eyes were very strange, as though they were weak, over-sensitive, yet with a look that was old and wise and tired...his graceful womanish hand...birdlike frailty that belies his name...his strange un-manlike, unsexual nature...maybe he was queer...There was an indefinable strangeness about his way of walking, a quality that reminded Bryce of the first homosexual he had ever seen, back when he had been too young to know what a homosexual was....

This androgyny and sexual ambiguity is Bowie's bread and butter. Indeed, it is nature's bread and butter - this whole business of whether we will one day hang a His towel in the bathroom or a Hers, a selection devoid of one's free will and yet with considerable ramifications for our entire brief journey through space and time.

And certainly it is difficult not to hear echoes of Major Tom when Newton utters in despair at the novel's end, "This world is doomed as certainly as Sodom, and I can do nothing whatever about it." Planet Earth is blue and there is nothing anyone can do.

Critchley briefly touches on this Newtonian connection, although his reference is not to the novel but to the 1976 film by the same name, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring none other than David Bowie in the lead role. (Interestingly enough, it appears that Roeg wanted Bowie for the role based on Bowie's "Starman" riffs, but neither of them had read Tevis' novel.)

It's worth noting that the novel's themes center around a bird-boned alien from another planet (Anthea) peopled with a dying race of super intelligent creatures who have, nevertheless, found a way to destroy themselves and the resources of their planet with a nuclear war, forcing this last ditch effort by Newton to establish on Earth an outpost and bridge for his people to escape from their contaminated planet.

A rather cold technologist at first, Newton is seduced by listening to old blues and gradually moves into polyphonic jazz, and he becomes more sensitive to Earth's own global issues as he introduces revolutionary chemical processes and assorted techniques meant to improve the general well-being of humanity, while raising funds that will help build a spaceship to bring his people to Earth.

But then he is stupidly blinded by war-mongering intelligence agents (CIA, FBI), the same kinds of forces that led to the destruction of Anthea, and it becomes clear, as Newton sinks into a bluesy alcoholic funk, the essential lightness of his being pressed by the unbearable weight of human gravity, that the two planets, and perhaps all planets with humanoid creatures, are doomed to the same destructive fate.

It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that the principal leit motif of The Man Who Fell to Earth is Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus. Newton-Bowie are fine embodiments of that notion that progressive-liberalism, assisted by the Daedalean wing-making of technological evolution, will lead us to a Sunshine Superman existence at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But sh*t happens. And as Critchley points out, "Rather than amuse ourselves by playing with some fraudulent political agenda [such as Bono's facile philanthropy, writes Critchley], Bowie simply declares that "It's no game. Sh*t is serious."

But the question is: Can we see it in time? Tevis answers the question mark that is Brueghel's Icarus by employing W.C. Williams' famous poem about the painting, which is a study in human indifference to urgent and revealing historical events unfolding before our eyes.

(Tevis further magnifies this point by positing on a humanistic scientist's wall a lithograph of Maricio Lasansky, he of The Nazi Drawings fame, that gets gradually covered up by piles and piles of useless, generic student theses; only a pair of eyes is visible in the end.) So Bowie becomes this yearning Icarian figure falling for us (a sign, like the Christ), and we, the readers of his art are the Williams-like poet-performers of his work in our hearts, or the critics of such performance-responses, or, drifting ever further away in a 'tin can' of ineffectuality, we are the observers of the critics of the performers of the art we can not do much about.

Thus, as we hurdle as a race toward the Singularity, that historical moment when human and the digital merge, Newton/Bowie/Critchley point toward an end that needn't be but is coming nigh, fuelled by a rush-job utopianism that has not been thought through. The Nietzschean superman meme may seem to Buddhist geeks a passage beyond all-too-human desires to a place of sublime eternity, but don't count on it. As Critchley observes, "Bowie asks, who are the Nietzschean supermen,these creatures that have left behind the human condition? Far from paradise and way to the east of Eden, they lead 'Tragic endless lives /Could heave nor sigh in solemn perverse serenity /Wondrous beings chained to life.' The more-than-human, in­finite life of the superman is cruel torture. All he craves is a chance to die."

This, of course, smacks of the Book of Revelations, which paints an End in which 'men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die,' as Bob Dylan puts it in his Biblically-influenced riff, "Precious Angel."

It is this gloomy, freaky nihilism that Bowie, with all his post-modern cut-up lyrics, seems to encapsulate, and yet which so many of his followers find strangely inspiring. Critchley suggests that such inspiration comes from the fact that, despite Bowie's essentially dystopic vision, "the longing for love"is characteristic of Bowie's art " If Bowie's music begins from loneliness, it is not at all an af­firmation of solitude. It is a desperate attempt to overcome solitude and fi­nd some kind of connection. In other words, what defi­nes so much of Bowie's music is an experience of yearning."

The invocation of the word 'love' seems so quaint and sentimental now. And that may itself be a most telling sign. Personally, it becomes ever more difficult to travel back to my Bowie-inspired memories, as though those times and places were themselves distant planets receding by the year. My last memory of things Bowie though comes from the planet Glass Spider Tour, which I attended with Marisa in 1987 at Foxboro Stadium.

Standing in the dark, a doophus doppelgänger, while my love cheered and the crowd was alive and organic with excitement, if I'm honest, some part of me hoped he'd suddenly fall, like Icarus, from his perch high above the set, tumble and end the charade, one could almost anticipate the chord change that would strike the crowd, like a Jimi Hendrix lick, but then it occurred to me that Bowie probably planned it that way, a purpose-built tension to be released in his casual belting out of "Ashes to Ashes." Icarus forever falls, but Bowie, that singular showman, is a survivor. That is his ethic.


(Article changed on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:06 AM EDT)


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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe and the USA, such as Cordite, Morning Star, Hanging (more...)

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