Devereux, Eoin. David Bowie critical perspectives

Devereux, E., ed. (2015). David Bowie: Critical perspectives [versión para lector digital]. Taylor and Francis

Ensayo por Ana Leorne (pag 320)

I explore the implications of David Bowie’s creation of alter-egos, from messiah rock star Ziggy Stardust to the Nietzsche influenced Thin White Duke, analysing them through the lens of some of the most prominent psychoanalytic theories, including the Freudian theory of perversions, the psychoanalytical duality of ‘Eros’ and ‘Thanatos’ as the two basic drives of an individual’s personality, and Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ which emphasises its importance in the development of the Self. By seeking a better understanding of each of Bowie’s personae, I intend to emphasise their importance in David Bowie’s career and connect them with Bowie’s need for creating a mechanism of self-defence that would allow him to forge a successful path and become a highly influential artist. I argue that these personae were absolutely necessary for him to express himself the way he did, working as a tool of the Self during the first half of the 1970s. (pag 320)

When the subject is unable to cope with his/her drives and therefore denies their existence, they are pushed into the subconscious where sooner or later they surface as a neurosis. This occurs when a drive which is not accepted by the Super-Ego channels itself through some other form. The positive way of coping with a socially non-accepted perversion is expressing it through Art—and that is the basic Freudian explanation for so many hidden meanings in masterpieces. (pag 322)

When it comes to applying such ideas to David Bowie, it might be argued that a strange combination of Eros and Thanatos is observable not only in his music, but also in the creation of the multiple personae that he uses as filters to the outside world, allowing him to cope with people and/or situations without having to fully expose himself. These personae are not only different in their core, but also contain distinct mixtures—if one can metaphorically address it as a chemical compound—of the basic drives of Life and Death, resulting in a more or less poisonous cape or cover for the individual. (pag 322)

Each one represents a different view of Freud’s theory of perversions,3 and the way these are coped with through the process of creation; the childhood rule of egotism, self-centring and desire of mastery is illustrated by Ziggy’s wish of immortality as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Messiah, while Aladdin Sane’s Fort-Da game showed an unexpected ending with obvious consequences,4and the Über-Controlling Thin White Duke played the icy Führer while writing a passionate letter to Europe. The path made by Bowie between 1972 and 1976 would be enough to fascinate a room full of psychoanalysts. (pag 322)

biographer Peter Doggett puts it, the whole idea was based on the conceptual statement that, instead of “pursuing fame, as he had in the past, Bowie would act as if he was already famous beyond dispute” (Doggett, 2011: 3). This is very much connected to Danto’s theory of the Artworld that addresses the institutional definition of Art by contextualising it socially, and therefore passing an object of Art as ‘true’ or ‘valid’ when it is integrated in the above-mentioned complex socio-cultural system. But Ziggy wasn’t proclaimed by anyone else other than Bowie, making it oddly more ‘valid’ by the simple fact that it/he couldn’t be questioned as an idea. There was no one to be questioned about it but the persona itself. And so the illusion begins, an outer-space creature that could become anything and nothing, an apparent blank canvas that lasted for about twelve months and took Bowie to the limits of his own psyche by becoming less and less unable to ‘undress’ Ziggy whenever he wanted to do so. (pag 327)

The only valuable gold is that which is used to enrich others; this concept can be seen as a metaphor to Bowie’s ability to put a part of himself—or his alter ego—in his performances, while his Ego was symbiotically fed by the sharing of his artistic essence with others. (pag 330)

Unable to cope with its existence anymore, Bowie kills the persona with whom he created a whole world—not to say ‘universe’, speaking Ziggy’s language—the centre of a concept that put him on the map of twentieth-century music idols. But is the need for change the only valuable reason for Bowie having ‘given up’ on Ziggy? One can say that it was neither the pressure of the character nor the unsettlement he felt towards his Art that led Bowie to kill Ziggy Stardust that night on the Odeon stage. Probably it was simply because Ziggy had served its/his purpose, it had brought Bowie the acknowledgement he had been looking for since the release of his single ‘The Laughing Gnome’ in 1967 thereby working more as a tool than as a mask.6 David Bowie eventually threw Ziggy Stardust away, getting rid of what was now past and had only served as a bridge to the next phase. (pag 330)

This was to be a period of excesses before falling into the strictness of the Thin White Duke who was to follow Aladdin Sane. Everything was an experiment during this period and the assertiveness with which Bowie presented himself now was often confused with egotism and ‘quick-stardom’ fever (in his 2002 review of the album’s 30th Anniversary edition, BBC writer Rob Webb called Aladdin Sane “a chameleon lost, for one glorious moment, in his own camouflage”). The success of Ziggy Stardust made it easier for Bowie to try on new styles, in order to maintain his own evolving style, which was based on changing all the time. During an interview with Circus Magazine in 1976, Bowie himself pointed out that

my whole thing, of course, has always been changes. My vehicle has been changes. I think that’s what I’m best known for, and that is what I’ve been trying to say. And over the last year, it gladdens me to think that I was right. That, no, I didn’t have a style. That my style is changes.

(Bowie cited in Edmonds, 1976) (Devereux;332)

The Ziggy period had worked as a trigger for his creative fertility and Bowie was now on a roll, generating new songs with greater frequency. With all the touring, recording, and unavoidable personal issues… the need for a justification for what he was doing through an intricate, carefully thought out background concept, just didn’t seem to be a priority to him. So the Aladdin persona ended up more as an evolution of Ziggy, only more daring. Ziggy represented the pureness with being associated with the universe and the stars, while Aladdin Sane was much more an alien corrupted by the earthly sins. He was faster, louder, and more assured of himself than ever (pag 332)

Bowie’s subconscious was desperately seeking something or someone that wouldn’t let him down like people recently seemed to—the Defries’ label ownership situation; the increasingly strained relationship with his wife Angie; the seeming lack of dependable close friends—and very soon he realised that only in perfection and absolute control would he be able to fight the demons in his mind that kept him struck with fear of everything and everyone. This drive for perfection can be defined as Freud’s concept of Ego-Ideal, first mentioned on his 1914 essay On Narcissism, which is often referred to as a precursor of the Super-Ego. In Freud’s On Narcissism: An Introduction, León Grinberg distinguishes the normal ego-ideal from the pathological ego-ideal, explaining that the first “determines the values and ideals to which the individual aspires”, while the latter is “tyrannical and persecutory, imposing extremely high and unattainable objectives” (Grinberg, 2012: 105). By the time David Bowie turned to the Übermenschen theories as rules to live by, it had become pretty obvious that the balance between himself and his personae had fallen in the second category. (pag 338)

It’s interesting how this all started. At the time I did Ziggy Stardust, all I had was a small cult audience in England from Hunky Dory. I think it was out of curiosity that I began wondering what it would be like to be a rock & roll star. So basically, I wrote a script and played it out as Ziggy Stardust onstage and on record. I mean it when I say I didn’t like all those albums—Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, David Live. It wasn’t a matter of liking them, it was ‘Did they work or not?’ Yes, they worked. They kept the trip going. Now, I’m all through with rock & roll.(pag 338)

“the Aladdin Sane album was Ziggy’s viewpoint about ‘Oh, God, I actually have made it and it’s really crazy and I’m not sure what to make of this …’”), the Thin White Duke is completely the opposite. He too sings about love, loss and emotion with a profound intensity, but he feels nothing. In evoking this persona, it is as if Bowie is creating a defence mechanism for his own vulnerability and towards his own songs.

‘The Thin White Duke’ archetype is one of the most feared patients of psychoanalysis, an intricate junction of Carl Jung’s types of Self, Persona and Father,13 resulting from his coldness and apparent “normality”, building a mighty cape around him, and making it almost impossible for the therapist to pass through (pag 340)

In some way, at this time the song ‘Fame’ actually worked as a catharsis for Bowie. This composition, shared with Lennon and in which the ex-Beatle sings backing vocals—the famous “Fame!” behind the main verse—may have said almost everything that was passing through Bowie’s mind at that moment regarding his sudden loss of a father figure. The song’s chart success (it became Bowie’s biggest selling single in the United States to that date, reaching number 1 on the Billboard chart) helped to spread Bowie’s views towards the fame concept itself (“Fame, (fame) makes a man take things over / Fame, (fame) lets him loose, hard to swallow”) into a creative behaviour rather than a destructive one. (pag 343)

The fact that Bowie ceased to seek new personae through which to channel his music denounces an evolution regarding his own self-esteem when it comes to exposing himself on stage, on record, to the world. But in Bowie’s case, the creation of characters was built not only to serve as a mask that protected his real Self from public opinion—which could be very cruel—but also as a tool that allowed him to experiment without social and psychological filters. In his 1978 Crawdaddy! interview, Bowie referred to Ziggy as a

combination of Archetypal Prima Donna and Messiah Rock Star. That went through a lot of the characters–the arrogance and the ultra-ego quality. I left it to them to take on the repressed ego qualities that I had in me, that I would have loved to produce in my real persona.

(Bowie cited in White, 1978) (pag 348)

By becoming someone else, Bowie was able to see the world and talk/sing about it through a different point of view, projecting things that he never would have as David Bowie—or even as David Jones. As Lavigne puts it, “pleasure makes us escape from ourselves, go beyond our limits. Pain, on the other hand, makes reality manifest itself […], forcing us to look at ourselves and our failures” (Lavigne, 1953: 67). This can be interpreted as Bowie’s stage personae being what made him escape from his previous attempts to reach musical success, encouraging him to go beyond his own self. (pag 350)

After Space Oddity’s Major Tom (his first character ever), Bowie needed to create a whole new persona that wouldn’t carry the heavy luggage of having tried (and failed) so many times, especially given the relative success of The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory which illustrated to him he was about to find the right path. And amongst influences of Andy Warhol’s (one of the most important North-American visual artists of the twentieth century) characters (the play Pork is often quoted as a major influence on Bowie’s theatrical side),17 Iggy Pop, early idols, and an evolution from the recently born-again Space era, Ziggy Stardust was born. (pag 350)

“In the 1996 BBC documentary Dancing in the Street, Bowie stated:

If you asked me at the time what it was I was trying to do, I had simply no idea. All I knew it was, and I sound like a parrot saying this but it’s true, [was] this otherness, this other world, an alternative reality, one that I really want to embrace. I wanted anything but the place I came from” (pag 350)

It could be argued from a psychoanalytical perspective that for many years, Bowie lived a reality of himself as ‘other’, embracing his own images as the actual reality and himself as the projection. While an identification with the image of oneself is a vital step in an individual’s psychological evolution,18 it can become quite dangerous when one takes the projection as being the ultimate truth, gradually detaching oneself from what caused the so-called projection (the subject). By annulling the latter, the once healthy multiplicity of the individual’s “oneness” is perverted and can lead to serious psychological conditions that include the aforementioned schizophrenia, (pag 353)

The core concept when citing the need for Bowie to create all his alter-egos is probably as a self-defence mechanism. This is valid for coping not only with the new world and reality he was now beginning to deal with, but also with himself as an individual, a restless, bright mind in search of new artistic horizons and self-fulfilment, and as a creator who seeks a better understanding for his own actions and ends up building tools to help him with the whole process. The Ziggy Stardust persona was a trigger for Bowie to embrace the immense diversity of perspectives he held captive in himself; and through the subsequent creation (and destruction) of the personae that followed, he learned how to deal with his own Art and the way to communicate it (pag 353)

After the Thin White Duke, in Freudian terms, Bowie’s subconscious may be interpreted as having been transformed by himself in so many ways that it now had the ability to understand the need it once had of creating alter-egos, accepting that same need as part of a self-awareness process, a peculiar system of coping with concepts such as stardom and fandom whose basic structure changes on a daily basis became part of who he was. David Bowie accepted his constant mutability as being his own, and not of some persona he had created, and sooner or later would have to abandon, in order to preserve his sanity. This release makes us metaphorically imagine him smiling, getting up from the couch, shaking the analyst’s hand and leaving the office for one last time—to continue his self-discovery on his own. (pag 356)