An old photo: a hypnotist is swinging his shiny watch before the eyes of a person-to-be-hypnotized.
A kitsch advertisement in a local newspaper: a witch is staring into a crystal ball.
A work of modern art: a stuffed corpse covered by hundreds of glass beads.
* * *
Only one thing bothered me after writing two articles about Bowie, “how does his stuff work”. That is, how do his songs really get under one’s skin. It was beyond my understanding how a committed Christian while knowing very well, for example, about the references to Crowley in ‘Station to station’ can still partake the triumphant sadistic joy that the song conveys? What is there that so much violates the human will, and in such a way that the very rape of the will induces pleasure? Those questions are not just about Bowie – it just happened that “his stuff” is probably the most brilliant of its kind in our time. They are about how “the ultimate stuff” works.
As it was already stated in ‘Death as a work of art’ “the real stuff” and its’ particular manifestation, in Bowie’s work, can be adequately addressed only from the position of Christian mysticism. Consider the examples below.
A night/sex-club for Catholic clergy. One of them is lashing his own naked back; much blood. The decadent whores, among them one, almost albino, dressed in extremely transparent “bridal” attire. One of the whores, together with a priest, brings in a silver plate with two freshly plucked out human eyes. Another who looks somewhat more humane then others, reluctantly begins dancing with a priest. An old cardinal distributes banknotes in exchange for a kiss of his hand, a sign of submission. A singer, Bowie himself, dressed in “ancient” tunic but with a scarf around his neck, sings and dramatically points at “the most humane whore”; that gesture causes stigmata to appear on her palms. Blood is gushing from them; the white clothes of “the bride” become spayed and then soaked in blood. The priest who danced with her and is now standing between her and “the bride” somehow entirely avoids being spattered. Everybody is now looking in a trance at the singer; “the bride” has no bloody stains now. Bowie finishes his song and thanks the actors, “Gary” and “Mary” by their names, and then “everybody”.
An interpretation #1: Evangelical
Bowie sings about the “grand whore”, the Catholic Church. A cardinal is Satan = the Catholic Pope. Bowie also mocks stigmata, the typical Catholic case of delusion/ demonic possession. However, he also says something about someone “stuck in a hollow tree” for three days. Could it be Christ? The place is perverse: there they use prostitutes and serve human eyes.
An interpretation #2: Catholic
Bowie is mocking the Catholic Church representing it as run by money, bribes and lies. A self-lashing priest represents the supposed Catholic hypocrisy (“discipline” in a brothel). He mocks Christ and Christianity via various references (stigmata; allusion to St Mary Magdalene, Bowie himself represents “Christ” etc). Also, the lyrics have multiple hints to the Gospels story.
An interpretation #3: Christian mystical tradition.
A self-lashing priest is a mockery of the Catholic practice of “discipline” but the close-up of his naked back can be also a reference to Christ being lashed as well. The two eyes on the plate are directly from the Western iconography of St Luci (“Light”), depicted holding a plate with (her) two eyes, a virgin and martyr whose eyes were plucked out as a result of her refusal to renounce Christ. The perverse “bride” soaked by blood gushing from stigmata represents the birth of the Church = the Bride of Christ which, according to Christian teaching, was born from the wound of Christ on the Cross. The real Church = the Bride of Christ is pure, but here she is the worst of perverse whores. It is not even pseudo-Christ (Bowie) who bleeds for the Church there but another female, “St Mary Magdalene”. This can be a hint to the Gnostic texts about “the female principal” = “St Mary Magdalene” as the spouse of Christ; “the female principal giving a life to a society of initiated”; it can be just a simple mockery; whatever it is it pollutes the mystical understanding of the Church as the Bride of Christ. Next, the brothel or sex club “represents” the official Church against whose will, from a female, not from Christ, the “true” Church is born – from the whore and as a whore-bride. In authentic Christianity the Virgin Mary (Virgin, Bride, Mother) is one of the symbols of the Church; there are pagan stories about her as a whore who conceived from a Roman solder – so it is another blasphemous gnostic reference. The video is stuffed with a multitude of symbols but the most visually stunning among them are the two eyes on the plate (which can be interpreted as “the Church blinds the believers”/ destruction of light “God is light”), stigmata and the blood poured onto “the bride”. This is a very sophisticated and dense perversion of the heart of early Christian, and even, to some extent, Old Testament mysticism. However, all the above is rendered “not real = nothing” by Bowie thanking the actors for the roles played. It is nothing – “not serious”. It is also a statement of gnosis, “the uninitiated can see nothing”. It is also the return to the chaotic unconscious where the symbols are popping up and sinking without any rationale – the religious irrational. Finally, it means that it was “nothing” that created this, for the purpose of rendering all to nothing, and this latter is actually the only truth here. Hence, this gnostic game is beyond the simple stage of making something new and twisted with symbols borrowed from Christianity, it is making everything senseless, apart from “I AM”, the self-will which Bowie represents. It is the gnosis of only One Adept who pulls the strings of puppets (the rest of humanity or humanity as such).
This is actually not all. One, with the knowledge of Christian theology, especially mystical theology and also of gnostic texts and occult practices could continue piling meaning upon meaning because Bowie literally stuffed his video with numerous symbols, some of them mutually exclusive, some twisted, some tainted etc. This is in essence “the library” of symbols, Christian and occult but the library completely disorganized. The role of librarian is ascribed to the viewer and listener.
Speaking about the listener, it is noteworthy that the lyrics have not yet been brought into the analysis and yet we already have such a mess of symbols and ideas conveyed by them that it almost begs to be called “paranoid”. It is actually close to the truth but not in the sense that proponents of that kind of “stuff” employ when speaking about Christians, as will be shown below.
So, we have the “soup” of loosely connected religious/occult symbols and ideas; almost any of which can be interpreted in multiple ways. Let us see how “the visual soup” will behave when we throw in the lyrics (my comments are [in]).
Look into my eyes he tells her
I’m gonna say goodbye he says yea
Do not cry she begs of him goodbye yea
All that day she thinks of his love
[seems to be a simple love song]
They whip him through the streets and alleys there
The gormless and the baying crowd right there
They can’t get enough of that doomsday song
They can’t get enough of that all.
[this is unmistakably the way to Calvary]
Listen to the whores he tells her
He fashions paper sculptures of them
Then drug them to the river’s bank in the cart
They soggy paper bodies wash ashore in the dark
And the priest stiff in hate now demanding fun begin
of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest
[here the lyrics and the video come together, the perverted Church has twisted “his” teaching]
Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows
On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next day
And another day
[“Christ”, not really dying, not really dead is lying in a tomb (a hollow tree), triple repetition of “day” makes the Gospels three days in the tomb, albeit not exactly straight because those words can also be interpreted as “endlessly”. However, that “endlessly” can also serve a gnostic because it can be read as “they” (the Church) left “the Christ of gnosis” endlessly to rot via perverting his teaching, they made him dead”]
Ignoring the pain of their particular diseases
They chase him through the alleys chase him down the steps
They haul him through the mud and they chant for his death
And drag him to the feet of the purple headed priest.
[the same, dragging “Christ”; the Church kills him]
First they give you everything you want
Then they take back everything you have
[the devil’s/ gnostic society self-portrait]
They live upon their feet and they die upon their knees
They can work with Satan while they dress like saints
They know God for the devil told them so
They scream my name aloud down the well below
[“the mutual reflections” created by the references to the Church and by the voice of the devil himself are to be considered in detail below]
Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows
On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next day
And another day
It is important now to really apply oneself and put the video and the lyrics together – and, that is even more impossible, to hold them together. While this action clarifies some things, it hides others. This was the purpose of the author I believe. Here are the big parts of the collage:
A video would be seen by the majority simply as a primitive stance against the corruption in the Catholic Church while the lyrics express the major idea of gnosis, that Christ did not die, that the Church teaches the wrong story. Those two notions, “accusatory” and “gnostic” are held together by the idea of “stupid people whom the Church fools”.
Giving the “good prostitute” stigmata enhances the stance against corruption in the Catholic Church making it look like Bowie is a modern Christian prophet who wants to purify the Church. Meanwhile, many sophisticated blasphemies in the video enhance the major idea of gnosis, that Christ did not die. The stance against the corruption in the Church and sophisticated blasphemies of the author, the “prophet” clash terribly.
The beginning of the lyrics, the “love story” seems to be out of context here but it is actually a tool, both for hiding the true meaning and for creating a cognitive dissonance. To this purpose also serve some murky elements like references to gallows. Noteworthy, even the elements which are designed to cover or to subtly change the meaning of others can also work as additional mocking references. For example, gallows can be perceived as a reference to Tarot card, “the Hung Man” and also as a mocking reference to Christ commonly referred as hanging on the cross.
Next comes “First they give you everything you want/ Then they take back everything you have/ They live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/ They can work with Satan while they dress like saints” – this is, in my mind, the voice of the devil himself describing the true situation of his adepts but it is also what the adepts, gnostics/occultists say about Christians so it is a technically excellent double reflection again.
And then comes the remarkable line which can be read in two ways, like the “double reflection” above, “They know God for the devil/ (told them so)” or “They know God/ for the devil told them so”. “They take God for the devil” or “they know God because the devil told them it is so”. This is the voice of the devil again.
Finally, after restating the major message of the song, that Christ is not dead but is left to rot for three days, Bowie renders all to be a joke saying “thank you” for well-played roles: everything is nothing and, if one attempts to take any meaning from that nothing, he will only prove himself to be deadly serious and plain stupid.
However, creativity is not about creating meaninglessness/nothing (that is the work of a madhouse). Creativity is about making something that makes a sense, even if it is a very new sense – it may look “mad” but it must still have coherency to be perceived. An intricate system above, of devalued and abused symbols, deception, endless cross-references, and clashing meanings look quite the chaotic dead matter; it lacks something else to come to life, some organizing principal. The role of such a principal is played by the listener himself and by Bowie; his voice and music carefully guide the listener to extract meaning(s) from the otherwise meaningless collection. Here the creative act takes place not so much during the writing of the song but while listening to it. While the same can be said about any work of art which requires a performance (i.e. not a once and forever done painting) most of songs are usually finished by their authors, i.e. a singer can change their character a bit but not their entire content; the listener can do that even less, if at all. In the case of Bowie a song remains perpetually fluid.
Bowie’s voice, with its exceptionally rich modulations, works together with his music to suggest “the desirable mood”, for example, ecstatic violence in ‘Oxford town’. The extreme ambiguity of the lyrics, typically without an obvious plot and devoid of warm human emotions (those elements which would define the song landscape too clearly) achieves several points: it give the listener a sense of freedom to choose his own meanings from many implicitly offered thus giving him an illusion of his own creativity. At the same time, the occasional clashes of contradictory meanings put the mind into a state of “mental checkmate” from which it can escape by an altered state of consciousness similar to derealisation/depersonalisation. The mind enters into a trance-like state and opens to suggestions; what exactly a mind “chooses” to take from Bowie’s collection depends on the “underlying mood” of the induced trance, conveyed by the musical part.
There are additional methods to achieve the desirable purpose, the delivery of a certain oblique message, as well. A song (the lyrics) often is not one song but several, cut into lines, mixed and made one, parts glued together; the voice and music highlight and occasionally, at key-points, “restore” the hidden separate lines thus recovering the coherency of an otherwise hidden message. Often the line which carries only the secondary meaning or no real meaning whatsoever is made extremely catching by the music and voice (for example “bring me a disco king”, “it’s too late to be happy”) and is used to switch attention from the important content, the serious and direct occult references. On the other hand, the repetition and emotional force can be used to highlight the dark messages which look innocent or attractively-enigmatic to the uninitiated: “the return of the Thin White Duke throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”, “I am a seer and I am a liar”, “if you can see me I can see you” etc. The mind goes even further into trance and absorbs the lines of major importance without much conscious notice; they get stuck in the mind so a person is forced to repeat and repeat them, making the message his own. This of course does not make the listener automatically “a Satan-worshiper” but puts into his mind the words which (one may hope) the majority would not choose to repeat mindlessly if they knew what is really said.
It is of course not “a totally hidden satanic message” about which there is much noise on evangelical websites. Something that is totally hidden from human consciousness cannot be used to bring a human being down irrevocably because it would be a fundamental violation of God’s design, His gift of a free will and a rational mind. I wonder if it is the reason for a quite stunning phenomenon, that the voice of the evil occasionally breaks through in some of Bowie’s songs. Perhaps it is simply the mockery, of the evil who takes pleasure to state plainly who he is and what his intentions are while knowing that those before him will never believe it.
The question arises what happens next. Do the lines which convey the occult stuff eventually start working as “mantras” or “spells” in the mind of a listener? It seems that their major damage is that they condition the mind for certain dark things, making it easier for it to except things of a similar kind in the future. This is aided by the parallel devaluing of Christian symbols, or anything that is good, by the corruption of meanings which takes place on multiple levels. The “dark messages” which carry in themselves the emotions of deception, hatred, evil, futility (all that that eventually causes disintegration of the psyche and the self), work as “pressure points” in the songs mutually exclusive messages forcing the mind to fragment like a faulty hard drive. This fragmentation of mind is fused with the pleasure which the person feels listening to the songs which project an identity of superhuman, unrestrained force and total freedom. Rationality melts and the mind gives way to the unconscious. This unconscious can be (and often is) perceived by others as conscious and even rational via employing the postmodern logic of endless reflections of “meanings” which cover emptiness but eventually, when all the “molecules” of the collage are spent and nothing is left to disintegrate, then comes that most dreaded nightmare of the postmodernist, the sheer banality of evil – the true ‘Blackstar’.