Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of  the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?

It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.

As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328). 

In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar, “as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar reminds me of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare in The Guardian:

 “There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it.  It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.” 

As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.

But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.

It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.

There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement. 

I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”

Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.

Advertisements

Evocation: Billy Collins’ “Embrace”

Last week I came across Billy Collins’ poem “Embrace” — and I learned the rules* have changed, so I can offer it in totality, which is a good thing because you need it all. 

Embrace

You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.

@Billy Collins. From the collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems. First published 2006; rptd. 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press

It’s a stunning 12-line poem, and immediately I thought of Bowie, and will likely never again watch Bowie do the “parlor trick” without thinking of “Embrace.”

There’s absolutely no reason as far as I know why Bowie would have inspired any of Billy Collins’ work — the connection is in my head. Collins is an American poet, born 1941 in Manhattan, and was America’s poet laureate for 2001 to 2003. I’d describe him as an imagist, with a small i.

I hunted without success for a portrait by Andrew Kent, the photographer who did the black-and-white studies of the Thin White Duke. Maybe there is a Kent still of the “parlor trick,” or perhaps I was just mingling what we know of Bowie in the TWD era and the last six lines of “Embrace.”

I then asked for help from a particularly welcoming FB group of Bowie devotees (not all are) and got dozens of response, but this one of “Heroes,” from the same broadcast as the Bing Crosby and Bowie duet of the “Little Drummer Boy” is in in tone and choreography perfect. The video starts 15 seconds in.

heroes

*Quoting more than a few lines of a poem used to amount to academic or professional suicide. But the Poetry Foundation has concluded that a non-commercial blog may do so, if the poem is accompanied by “critique or commentary.” Many other conditions apply and are listed on page 13 of the guide. If a poet objects, then his or her wishes are to be respected. My reasoning is that since 52 of Collins’ poems are on PoemHunter, and the Foundation and PoemHunter are frequently mentioned in tandem on educational sites, Collins would probably not object.

Liminal Lazaruses 3: Do You Want to Be Free?

“This way or no way/ You know, I’ll be free”

Two Lazaruses: a song and a play; a beggar who stays dead, and a youth who walks out of his grave and into legend.

If Bowie’s last works were a parting message to his fans, why were there two of the same name but so different in tone?

I think Bowie was himself unsure, until fall 2015, whether these would be his final works.  It’s widely reported that he didn’t know he was dying until fall 2015, but longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti and others said he had told them he had cancer in 2014.

“The moment you know/ You know you know…”

That disconnect may mean that it wasn’t until the last months that his doctors told him they had nothing left in their bag of tricks, no more chemo, no possibility of surgery, all that could be had been tried, and all had failed.

But what if he had beaten the odds once again? He’d done it before. He was healthier at 50 than at 30, and seemed to be going strong when downed by a heart attack in 2004.

Six years ago, in this blog’s second post, I listed reasons why Bowie mattered to me, including:

“He survived. He came about as close to destroying himself as a man can, but he stopped his fall into the abyss, found something firm to cling to, and clawed his way back to safety. Then he moved on.”

When he released The Next Day, I recalled Bowie’s courage  in performing “Wake Up” with Arcade Fire in 2006, his first post-heart attack appearance.  “The Next Day” begins with the declaration: “Here I am/Not quite dying.” In 2004 he said he would not be writing about his heart attack, and with this line, he seemed to say, let’s get this out of the way at the start.

But I doubt that death was ever far from his thoughts after 2004. Perhaps it never had been. Bowie was a serious seeker, whether following the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism or studying the Gnostic gospels.

There are a number of photos of Iman and a happy David Jones at society events in the 2000s. But the last time Bowie smiled during a performance is, I believe, in ”The Stars Are Out Tonight” video. The video for the song “Where Are We Now?,” the first in advance of The Next Day’s January 8, 2013 release, is quietly desperate.

And then he dropped from view until October 2015 when the ★ video was released. He’d aged.  A lot. He’d lost a lot of weight. A paparazzi caught him arriving at the premiere of Lazarus: A Musical in early December; compared to the others in the scene, he looked jaundiced, more grimacing than grinning. (There are thankfully a few shots from the curtain call, in which his smile looks genuine and his color good — under stage lighting.)

He looks healthier and happier — truly smiling — in the Jimmy King  photos released on Bowie’s birthday, January 8, 2016. The King photos were the last official pictures for public display, but I don’t think they were taken in the last days.  In King’s photos, Bowie is wearing a fedora pulled way forward; if  his eyebrows are there, they are faint. His hair is very, very short. My impression is that these are post-chemo pictures, perhaps from summer 2015, and the chemo was showing signs of working.

Then he was gone. He made it through then holidays, his birthday and the release of ★. When someone told what the family had tried to keep quiet — that he had had liver cancer — I groaned.  I knew what was to come.*meister_des_codex_aureus_epternacensis_001

This time he would not be summoned from the grave. The button-eyed beggar Lazarus dies alone in a godless world. The Village of Ormen is gloomy and grey; its object of worship a bejeweled skull. When the Prophet comes, color briefly returns to the world, but it cannot be sustained.  There are no children or elders; the quakers and shakers attempt to devise a ritual but finally look like nothing more than a far from stellar collegiate dance troupe.

Buttoneyes dies alone and unmourned in what could be a shabby early 20th century nursing home. If the girl who appears is supposed to be an angel earning her wings, she fails to deserve a feather; she’d rather hide under the bed than be in the presence of the dying. The only ornamentation in the room is a tiny jeweled skull replica. This is Lazarus the beggar alone, whose hope for the future is in heaven, for this life is providing him nothing at all. He’s ready to go. This wouldn’t be the first Bowie song about a spiritual wasteland. It holds out hope of a heaven, but not a new life. Just a place where he might be.

Not very reassuring, is it?

Girl: “When you’re stuck between two worlds, it’s only right that you try something — incredible.”

02655rThere could be another end to the story, a “rewrite,” one that suggests a voyage into new worlds or a return to a perfected one. He could set sail; he could become an Immortal, as some legends say Lazarus of Bethany did. 

It’s hard, audacious even, to write about a musical I haven’t seen. But pictures of the show suggest that Thomas Jerome Newton lives in a world saturated wih color. There is music. He has visitors. An angel is sent to help him prepare for departure from a life that has become unliveable; another, Valentine, provides the means for direct action.

Hope, help, free and love are words that appears repeatedly in the script.heic0506b_hst

In the end, there are two changes to “Heroes”:

“We’re free now/ And that is a fact

“Yes we’re free now/ And that is that.”

and

“We could be saferJust for one day.”

Newton is not of the Earth, not ashes and not the dust of decay. He’s stardust, created, as we all were, in the Big Bang, and has returned to space, for where else is there to go?

Quotations from Lazarus: A Musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh. London: Nick Hern Books, 2016 .”This way,” p. 7, (“Lazarus”); ” moment you know,” p. 28 (Where Are We Now?”); “stuck between two worlds,” p. 26; “rewrite,” p. 45.

Images: Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Top panel: Lazarus begs, dies and his soul taken by angels to rest with Abraham (middle). Bottom: Dives’ (the rich man’s) soul is carried off by two devils to Hell; Dives is tortured in Hades.

Tomb of Lazarus, ca. 1890-1900. Part of the Library of Congress’s  Views of the Holy Land in the photochrom print collection.  LC-DIG-ppmsca-02655

Fairy of Eagle Nebula. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI/AURA

*Usually liver cancers are secondary; cancer cells from other organs metastasize or travel there. Primary liver cancer is associated with hepatitis or cirrhosis. After Bowie’s 2004 heart attack, even doctors were quick to blame his excesses during the 1970s. And so when it was announced he had died of liver cancer these years’ indulgences were again cited as the cause. He probably had done some damage to his liver in the 1970s, but those 35 years mattered. The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself, and only a fraction needs to be functioning to sustain life. But people — including some medical personnel — have a knee jerk reaction when an illness involves the liver. Say cirrhosis and the assumption is alcoholism; hepatitis, drugs. The stigma patients face is such that the international medical community changed the name of one auto-immune condition — primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) — to primary biliary cholangitis, although the new name is a less accurate moniker. Patients have enough to deal with without the yeah right looks that would come with explanations of this rare condition. Trust me on this. So when liver cancer was decreed, but not confirmed, I thought, here we go again: there will be many teachable moments to come.

Liminal Lazaruses 2: Loving the Alien

“Love the alien as you love yourself; for you were once aliens in the Land of Egypt… “(Leviticus 19:34)

“Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best laid plan. . . ” (Bowie, “Loving the Alien”)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus:“The New Colossus”)

In his introduction to Lazarus: A Musical: The Complete Book and Lyrics, co-author Enda Walsh recalls that  Bowie’s first sketch of the musical included

“a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem “The New Colossus” is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) — a woman who would . . . help and fall in love with . . . Thomas Newton.” (p. viii)

Emma didn’t make the cut (and yes, I’ve read Michael Cunningham’s fantasy, “Stage Oddity” — I’ll get to that later), but “The New Colossus” appears in The Complete Book and Lyrics after the end of the play and a blank page.*

Is it the name, Lazarus, that links Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” and the musical? Or the theme of emigration, the departure from home to a new land, from which there is little likelihood of return?

I think we can dismiss the name “Lazarus” as nothing more than serendipity.

Being a stranger in a strange land, not so easily.** As Walsh puts it, Thomas Jerome Newton is “the most travelled of immigrants,” that is, an alien (p. viii).

Bowie’s 1985 “Loving the Alien” is not about a man who fell to Earth but instead the seemingly endless back-and-forth battles of “the Templars and the Saracens/They’re travelling the holy land.” The 1985 video has a mid-80s dancing Bowie; the arrangement is curiously bouncy for a song with fairly grim lyrics.

Why the Templars and the Saraceans? Simply through reading widely, Bowie would have come across the Templars, and later when he progressed to Gnosticism, once again, there is a Templar connection. Using “Saracean” is just obscure enough to make the song not about a particular clash in the Middle East.

Primarily, I think too he wanted to play with the word and idea of alien. He’d had 10 years of being an unhuman alien, and now he’s reminding us that not all aliens are starmen.

In 1990, Bowie met Iman,  a Somalian immigrant to the US, and the couple joined the millions of other immigrants who have passed through or settled in New York City. In the early 2000s, Bowie asked guitarist Gerry Leonard to rearrange “Loving the Alien,” and on the Reality Tour, the song is slow, deliberate, somber.

Emma Lazarus, a Jew, was not one of the “huddled masses” of the mid-1800s who arrived in America fleeing the Russian pogroms or genocide of Jews; in fact, her forebearers had been in the US for several generations.

But as a Jew, a people without a homeland, she was also an alien, and was one of the earliest advocates for establishing a Jewish nation — a Zionist before the term had been coined. She too was a liminal Lazarus, suspended between the physical homeland of her birth and the spiritual but as yet unreal homeland of her faith.

 

*I haven’t found out (and would appreciate a definitive answer) if the poem is included in the program or read after the curtain falls on the play. If it didn’t, and the play is staged again, I believe that will change.

** Exodus 2:22. The main character of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a human raised by Martians for his first 25 years, the sole survivor of a mission to Mars. When an Earth-based expedition discovers him, he is forced to return to Earth, but doesn’t know how to be human. The character’s name: Valentine Michael Smith (there’s both a Valentine and Michael in  Lazarus, for what it’s worth.

Photos are from the National Park Service.lazarus-portraitchains-2

 

The Liminality of Lazaruses, part 1

Bowie’s Lazaruses (Blackstar’s and the musical’s), Anna Kavan’s, the beggar Lazarus, Lazarus of Bethany: I’ve been thinking about Lazaruses a lot lately.

“I’m a dying man who can’t die”–  David Bowie and Enda Walsh, Lazarus: A The Musical

We know Thomas James Newton can die; he is mortal. That, after all, is why he is on Earth: he came in search of water because his own planet had become too dry to support life. His family is dead. His problem is not that he cannot die but that his life has become unlivable, suicide doesn’t seem to be an option, and his body doesn’t run on the same timetable as humans’. In the last scenes of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nathan Bryce and Mary-Lou have aged some 20 years, but Newton has not. His liver must be superhuman: he has failed to drink himself to death, while Mary-Lou and Bryce seem well on their way.

I’ve not seen the musical; I’ve only read the screenplay, but my impression is that it ends with Newton finding what he wants, and that is to be free from life on Earth. Any play ending with “Heroes” can’t be as bleak as the videos for Blackstar.

“Mr. Bow did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well” —  Anna Kavan, I am Lazarus.

kavanPatti Smith casually mentions Anna Kavan (1901-1968) in M Train — just her name, nothing else. I don’t know if Bowie read Kavan, but he and Smith admire many of the same writers (e.g. Jean Genet). It is hard to overstate how bleak and disturbing it is to read Kavan’s I am Lazarus, a collection of short stories. It’s a slim volume, but a long read.

The title story and several others feature broken people subjected to aggressive medical interventions (inducing insulin shock to “cure” praecox dementia; repeated dosing of paraldehyde for “prolonged narcosis” of neurotics [a visitor describes a patient as a ”shape…who had already seemed to forfeit humanity” (“Palace of Sleep”)]. Others have survived WWII to live with the memory loss, terror, and confusion of PTSD.

All could claim to have “scars you cannot see” — if they had the ability or desire to communicate. Helpless, institutionalized or too shattered to realize they are dead inside, they both are and are not alive and have no way out.

New Testament Lazaruses

Lazarus the beggar and Lazarus of Bethany have two things in common: Both die of illness, and neither speaks for himself.

Lazarus the Beggar  (Luke 16: 19-31)

Lazarus died of leprosy at the gates of a grand house where he begged for scraps from the table of a “certain rich man” and was refused. When Lazarus died, “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” The rich man also died and was buried.Lazarus is at rest; the rich man lands in Hades where he is tormented and can see Lazarus.

Now he’s the one begging. He wants Abraham to send the leper over to his side to give him a drink of water, but the rich man is no longer giving the orders, and even if Abraham were to agree, it couldn’t happen: “‘a wide chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross from this side to you cannot do so, nor can they cross from your side to us’” [31]. Then the rich man decides the beggar should be sent back  to the world of the living so that he can warn his uncharitable brothers what awaits them. Abraham refuses, saying even if he did so, the brothers wouldn’t listen to the beggar.

So much for worldly wealth and power. I find several other interesting things about this. If the rich man recognizes that the man beside Abraham is his beggar, so to speak, would that mean that even though the angels came for him (the rich man is simply buried), the leper appears just as repulsive as he did on earth? Now the beggar is at rest. Were he sent on the rich man’s errand, would he have to repeat the process of dying? Is he not better off dead?

Lazarus of Bethany  (John 11:1-45) 

This Lazarus is the brother of Jesus’s friends Mary and Martha, so he is a young man when he dies after a short illness. He [his body?] is put in a tomb, and Jesus arrives in 4 days, the stone blocking the tomb is  rolled away, and Jesus calls to him. Then “the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go’” [44].

And that is the last we hear of him, but there are a number of legends about the rest of his life. Perhaps he was set out to sea and landed in Cyprus, establishing a church in Larnaca where the story arose that he lived another thirty years but 

never smiled except on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a pot, when he smilingly said: “the clay steals the clay.” He was worried at the sight of the unredeemed souls he had seen during his four day stay in Hades. 

A Gnostic teaching (and we know Bowie was interested in Gnosticism) claims Lazarus and the Apostle John are one and the same, “the only disciple to receive all teachings and initiations of the Holy Gospel, outer, inner and secret,” and that these secrets were revealed to him when Jesus entered the tomb and raised him from the dead.

Once dead and resurrected, can one die again? I’m not sure if the following is limited to one community of Gnostics, but it is intriguing:  

St. Lazarus lives in remote places and wanders the earth in secret, immortal and indestructible. According to legend, he receives one or two disciples in every generation to whom he transmits the inmost secret teachings, serving as a guardian and knowledge-keeper of the Light-Transmission on earth. . . .Though many might think of him as an old man, legend speaks of him as a young and very handsome man, and he is often called the Eternal Youth or the Hermit-Lad.. . .

He is youthful and has a beautiful boyish face, appearing as though he were sixteen, though having pure white hair. His eyes are unearthly in appearance, as though the universe is in them and his gaze seems otherworldly.

Those eyes…laz

The Thin White Duke Laid to Rest and Psychic National Defense

Nothing about the Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s characters or personas, makes sense.

There’s no story line to him, as there is with Ziggy, just the one song, “Station to Station.” And what an odd song it is: There seems to be a narrator in the first two lines (“The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”). In lines 3-9, the TWD begins by addressing a listener (“Here are we”), but by line 6, he is alone again (“Here am I”), then in line 8, it’s “we” again, and in line 9, “you” enters, and then after the reiteration of the narrator’s lines, it’s “I” and “you” again.

It’s as if Bowie couldn’t control the TWD, even here, in his one song.

There were just too many perspectives to juggle. And this I think is how things were for Bowie in 1975. There was still a David Jones in there somewhere, who was presenting himself as David Bowie, and playing Thomas Jerome Newton, and trying to create a new persona so he could face the world post-LA.

Bowie seems to have been hell-bent on self-destruction during this period. As part of this perverse project, he creates a persona fashioned to repulse.

Not that there is anything in the TWD’s one song that is repellant. The TWD persona emerged in style and interviews.

Bowie had met Christopher Isherwood, an English writer who was attracted to Berlin because in the 1930s it was a place he could safely enjoy with his lover, poet W. H. Auden. He evacuated himself as the Nazis gained power. Had Bowie lived in Germany when transportation to the death camps began, he could have been sent to a concentration camp for any of at least three reasons: bisexuality, miscegenation, and familial history of mental illness.

Isherwood’s Berlin Stories provided the inspiration for Cabaret, which may in turn have inspired Bowie to end Station to Station with “Wild is the Wind,” a song that his friend Nina Simone performed with great feeling. (Nina Simone was foremost a singer, but she was also a black activist. Bowie befriended her during a slump in both their lives, and although Simone died in 2003, her website is still updated. When Bowie died, someone took the trouble to say that  Simone considered him to be “a close and trusted friend and ally.”

Bowie’s black and white suit and the stark staging of the Station to Station tour were perhaps intended to recapture the look of Berlin in 1930s newsreels, a black-and-white world.

The TWD is not a starman; he is a time traveler. If the TWD had been a connoisseur of decadent Berlin nightlife, he would have been fine. But to be a very “Aryan” looking guy in 1930s Berlin was a dangerous look. And because the TWD wasn’t in the music, Bowie started talking. I think it is clear that the outlandish things Bowie said were the persona talking. When you read these words: “I think that morals should be straightened (emphasis added) up for a start. They’re disgusting,” you know Bowie isn’t doing the talking. We don’t believe that when Ziggy sang “Five Years” that Bowie believed we had five years left to live, do we?

Another hint: From the Cameron Crowe 1976 Playboy interview: “Last question. Do you believe and stand by everything you’ve said? BOWIE: Everything but the inflammatory remarks.” 

The most thorough examination of the TWD’s views I’ve found is by Arad Alper, “Taking It All the Right Way: Was David Bowie a Fascist?”  I was so glad to find this because I had been putting off writing this post because everything about Bowie – actions and words -prior to and after the TWD repudiates what he said in the interviews.

By 1980, when Bowie – not the TWD – talked to NME, I think he was genuine here:

“I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur. It was not as you probably know because… I mean, this whole racist thing which came up, quite inevitably and rightly, but – and I know this sounds terribly naive – but none of that had actually occurred to me, inasmuch as I’d been working and still do work with black musicians for the past six or seven years. And we’d all talk about it together – about the Arthurian period, about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign, and about the mythology involved.”

The Nazi mythology was fantastical, involving as it did Atlantis, hollow earth, grails and arks and holy spears, round tables, bizarre archaeology, expeditions to Tibet, and Hitler’s persuasive powers a result of his being an accomplished wizard. And of course Alistair Crowley’s name pops up, sometimes as a British agent; others, a double agent.

Nazi occultism has been a source for all manner of entertainments, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to appearances of occult-obsessed Nazis in superhero comic books,  villains in video games, not to mention sensationalist histories. Not surprising then that during his isolated existence in LA that Bowie would have indulged his imaginings of “Himmler’s sacred realm/Of dream reality.”

Battle of [for] Britain/The Letter[s]

One more speculation before we leave the TWD and Dion Fortune.

Fortune loved Glastonbury and describes its spiritual power in Avalon of the Heart. She would have tolerated no Nazi nonsense about the Holy Grail. It’s in Glastonbury, and that is where it belongs.  It’s a pity that Bowie didn’t put down Psychic Self-Defense and read Avalon of the Heart. Then again, he might not have recognized Violet Firth, its author, as the real name of Dion Fortune. (The book is now available with Fortune as the author. There may have been a 1971 issue with Dion Fortune as author.)

Not all the occult activity in WWII was in Germany. Occultists were active in Britain as well, but they were true to the tenets of occultism, working below the radar as it were. Doreen Valiente, the mother of modern witchcraft in England, was one of the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Although there is no suggestion that she used magic to break codes, it’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know when the Bletchley codebreakers were first mentioned by name in the press.

During WWII, Fortune encouraged occultists throughout Britain to launch a psychic defense against the enemy, asking them to unite and use their magical forces to repel an invasion. Each week she would send instructions for a meditation to be performed as a certain time by magicians throughout Britain with the aim of establishing a psychic barrier to a physical invasion by the Nazis.  The name of the book that tells of these efforts: The Magical Battle of Britain: The War Letters of Dion Fortune. You can read a fairly large chunk of it on Google Books.

Fortune clearly took the occultism of the Nazis very seriously indeed and considered WWII a fight between good magic and evil magic.

Bowie wouldn’t have known of this in the 1970s. The Magical Battle of Britain was first published in 1993.

The lyrics don’t seem relevant, but I wonder if the song title “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” on Earthling was a little nod to Fortune.

And as it happened, the Nazis never did set foot on the mainland of the British Isles.

Good prevailed.

The Cabbalah and Magic, Malicious Magic, and Magical Mishaps

Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense (1930) is a book she would have preferred not to write. She acknowledges that to describe means of defending against psychic attacks requires divulging information about how psychic attacks are made, but she believed too that psychic attacks went unrecognized and were more common than one might expect, and so it was time for someone to discuss the problem with authority and clarity.

Fortune counted herself among those who use the occult to achieve “mystical experiences and [as] a means of lifting the burden of human suffering” (xxvii). As such, she thinks it critical that “men of goodwill should investigate the forces which men of evil will have perverted,” that is, “the pathologies of the mystic life” (xxviii); she warns, however, that those of highly suggestible natures stay clear of the book.

We won’t ever know if Bowie was a victim of a magical muddle or targeted for attack by an evil magician. If he had been targeted, then there had to be a reason.

Was it more likely that he believed himself to be psychically violated, and this conviction was as potent as any magic?

The Cabbalah and Magic

The Cabbalah is the basis of Jewish mystical thought, so what has it to do with magic?

Fortune was an expert on the Qabalah (her preferred spelling), and provides a brief overview of this exceedingly complicated system that “forms the basis of Western occult thought” (p. 83). There are two kinds of evil, negative evil and positive evil, and both of these have their own positive and negative states. “Negative positive” evil is chaos; “positive Positive Evil” are “the demons themselves, or the Qlippoth” (84). In Qabalitic philosophy, the Creator brought “the universe into manifestation through a series of Divine Emanations” (84). These, the Ten Holy Sephiroth, are what make up the Tree of Life. The Sephiroth didn’t come into being all at once; instead one would emanate from another and eventually the two would be in equilibrium and the next emanation proceeded. However, during the time of emanation, there was an “uncompensated force,” from which came ten kinds of Positive Evil (Qlippoth).

Evil intentions go to these Qlippoth, building up their strength throughout the history of mankind: “when we consider all that must have been poured into these ten sinks of inequity since the days of atlantean Magic, through the decadence of Babylon and Rome, down to the Great War [WWI], we can guess what rises up from them when their seals are broken” (85). “Evil intelligences” carry the temptations of the Qlippoth further still. These beings, formulated by sinister magicians, produce “objective phenomena”: noise, slime or blood deposits, balls of light, and putrid stenches.

The Ten Divine Emanations (Archangels, Sephiroth) have their counterpart Infernal Emanation (Archdemons, Qlippoth ). An Adept needs to control the Archdemon before he invokes the Archangel. Otherwise, the two will be released simultaneously (85). Experienced magicians calling on Archangels know that.

Deliberate Malicious Magic

Black magicians deliberately unleash powers of darkness.

Deliberate attacks proceed by means of telepathic suggestion, invocation of “certain invisible agencies,” and using a physical substance or magnetic link (136-37).  The magician penetrates his victim’s aura, usually by using something like a lock of hair or an item frequently worn or handled by his target. He has now formed a magnetic link which enables the magician to begin his telepathic communications. These are received by the victim’s subconscious, rendering him “disturbed and uneasy” (140). Alternative methods are by ceremonially substituting an animal that is then sacrificed or a wax effigy then melted or by using a talisman.

Some causes for attacks are “falling foul of an unscrupulous occultist” (142), or worse still, “a  dispute with an occult fraternity” (157). 

Magical Mishaps

Those who have some knowledge of magic but who get in over their heads may become the victims of their own ineptitude, particularly people working alone whose knowledge is theoretical.

Fortune provides as a case study a letter to the Occult Review of 1929:

“Desiring some information which I could not get in any other way, I resorted to the System of Abramelin, and to this end prepared a copy of the necessary Talisman, perfecting it to the best of my ability. . .The ritual performed, I proceeded to clear my place of working. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; my ritual was imperfect and I only rendered the Talisman useless without in any way impairing the activities of the entity invoked. This looks like nothing else than gross carelessness on my part; and to a certain extent that is true – but the point I wish to make is this, that my knowledge of this particular system, and therefore my ritual, were imperfect; and in any case, I had been shown no method of combating this particular entity when once aroused.” (86-87)

What followed were monthly attacks of increasing violence by a demonic entity. He sought the help of a competent magician who was able to control the force he had set in motion. His lesson: “treat with the greatest of care any printed system of magic, and [do] not use them at all unless they have the fullest control over the entities invoked” (89).

I wonder if Bowie in his wired state either attempted magic and had such a mishap, or had attempted magic ineffectually but decided he had released some entity that was intent on his psychic destruction.

All we know that he did conjure in LA was the Thin White Duke.