Last January while waiting for Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant, I chanced upon Philip Hoare’s, The Sea Inside, and enjoyed it so much that after Serious Pleasures I returned to Hoare, this time The Whale (UK Leviathan), and hence to Melville’s Moby Dick, a wonderful book to live in for several weeks, when not required reading. I also started keeping an eye out for Hoare’s short pieces in The Guardian and following his Twitter feed (@philipwhale).
Looking for allusions to David Bowie in Hoare became a game with me because if he could work Bowie into a book about whales, then where would one appear next? Now the game feels bittersweet; in the past few weeks so many have written so much.
Already it is tapering off, this deluge of tributes. I suppose tributes — their writing and their reading — are part of grieving, which serves the living, not the dead. I wonder too if there is not some element of magical thinking about them, whether they are like the command not to speak ill of the dead or RIP [rest in piece], means perhaps of insuring that the spirits of the dead are placated, safely sent on their way, no lingering, no haunting.
I find tributes to the living much more compelling, and this, I realize, is what I was looking when I started keeping track of Bowie Sightings, in Hoare and in Matt Haig’s novels.
Such sightings I see as thank-you notes, sent out into public space, with generosity of spirit: to Bowie, and to the future readers.
When authors I respect allude to those from whom they have gained much, I take note (Patti Smith’s highly allusive M Train is a moving, melancholy meditation on memory and mediaries to the mystical. To read what she has: a fantastic voyage).
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” — E. M. Forster, Howard’s End
Forster, best known for his novels including A Passage to India, was a friend of Stephen Tennant’s, but what I’m interested in here is “only connect.”
By sharing or connecting, the personal becomes public, while still remaining just as personal to Hoare or Smith, undiminished.
Consider (again) the Bowie allusion in The Whale [Leviathan]:
“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transatlantic ships sail by, like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past, waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth.”
Hoare explains this in the notes on the text:
“17 ‘boats borne back ceaselessly’ F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin, 1974, 188. Gatsby looming over the water is a reflection of Ishmael at the Battery, whilst Fitzgerald’s closing phrase about ‘that vast obscuity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night’ echoes the final passage in Moby-Dick: ‘then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.' In The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), Thomas Jerome Newton also looks out over the water, and the film’s director, Nicholas Roeg, cites Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, with its reference to Icarus.”
Several years ago I wrote about similarities I saw between Jimmy Gatz (who the Great Gatsby was before he was Gatsby) because I see Bowie as very much a self-made man. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are Americans novels that have very little in common except what matters most: they will endure.
Here, however, Hoare is responding to resonances of imagery. There is no ocean in The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), but there is a pier, and at the end of it is a light. Newton and his girlfriend live across a lake from the scientist who seems Newton’s friend but betrays him, and all collapses for Newton, as it did for Ismael.
When Hoare was asked by Electric Sheep who he considers his avatar or alter ego, he readily responded:
“Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
“Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock.”
In David Bowie Is, Hoare remarks that “The Man Who Fell to Earth is such a key point in the Bowie universe because it exists sui generis – it’s completely on its own” or “reduced to the essence of Bowie-dom. . .always being beyond.”
I agree, and if I had only one Bowie item — album, video, film — that I could take to a desert island, it would be The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Magic — that is the only explanation for the trinitarian creation of Thomas Jerome Newton by Walter Tevis (who wrote the novel), director Nicolas Roeg, and David Jones/David Bowie (and I will add that the actor in those other movies of Bowie’s is more correctly David Jones).
It’s not that Bowie fits the description of Newton in Tevis’s novel; he doesn’t. But Roeg knew when he saw Cracked Actor that only Bowie would do, no matter that he had no previous experience. Interestingly, in his next picture, Walkabout, Roeg would cast David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, an Australian aboriginal who spoke no English (as well as his own son, Luc) in the lead role, and it seems unimaginable that any other man could replace Gulpilil in the role.
So why did Roeg chose Bowie? He is not human. And he isn’t. He is a projection. When Newton teleports, when he sends messages home by way of music broadcast into space, he is Bowie. When he is the gentlest of gentlemen, private and remote, and one of the most influential people on the planet, he is Bowie.
The way I connected Bowie and Gatsby differs from Hoare’s, and he brings them together via Melville.
In other instances the public persona of Bowie is connected in more obvious ways. Take, for example, Oscar Wilde and Bowie. In Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, Hoare slips in a reference to Heddon Street, where Bowie is photographed for the Ziggy Stardust cover. Bowie of course had no direct physical connection to Wilde (1854-1900), but Hoare sees Wilde as a proginitor of Bowie — and Bowie as a guide to those who preceded him, including Wilde (connections run multiple ways). “My education came from him [Bowie] as I learned about William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and Jean Genet. Just like Oscar Wilde, he commodified dissent for the suburbs,” and in a review of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, Hoare notes that author David M Friedman “might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World – would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.”
I agree Bowie’s visit to Warhol’s Factory led to his re-invention of himself. When I look at the picture of Bowie in his man-dress, scowling and being paid no attention at Warhol’s, I think Bowie’s epiphany is that a colorful and embracing decadence is what he could offer England, that NYC already had the dark decadence market cornered: consider the Velvet Underground’s songs “Venus in Furs” about S&M and the paean “Heroin.”
I’d also argue that Bowie’s legacy will surpass Burrough’s, Warhol’s. Genet’s and Wilde’s. He was a magpie: Bowie took the shiny bits he found and built himself a magnificent fortress. And he had well over 50 years to do so.
“Live in fragments no longer,” to repeat Forster. Add to this Ezra Pound’s command to poets to “make it new,” Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” and Blake’s “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”
There are so many ways begin to talk about Bowie.