Bowie by Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley
Eric Hanson, illustrator
Bowie
July 2014
New York, London
OR Books
192 pages
$15 (Paperback); $10 (E-Book); $20 (Print + E-Book)
ISBN 978-1-939293-54-1 (Paperback)
ISBN 978-1-939293-55-8 (E-book)
Buy here

Simon Critchley’s Bowie is not a biography. It is not a memoir (“The unity of one’s life consists in the coherence of the story one can tell about oneself … It’s the lie that stands behind the idea of the memoir” (15)). No, Bowie is a book about Simon Critchley via Bowie’s music and personae; Bowie is a book about David Bowie and his music via Simon Critchley’s child- and adulthood minds (and hearts). Yes, plural. For identity, as Critchley writes, is not some “grand narrative unity.” Rather, paraphrasing Hume, it ”is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory” (16). I am thrilled Critchley decided to pick up some of his own and move it around, re-curate (recreate) the amassed piles, and allow us to walk through those pungent rooms with him.

This personal and philosophical journey through the albums and songs of Bowie begins with a 12-year-old boy in suburban England. The boy is bored. Bored. Bored. A bored virgin awaiting some news that life is not this.

The that he’d been waiting for came through the television in 1972, a message of both sound and vision in the form of Bowie’s performance of “Starman.” Bowie had fallen into young Simon’s world—just the alien Simon needed—prompting an awakening: sexual, cultural, social, and political. 

I admit I was expecting a dense study, a dryer take on Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the numerous other incarnations/iterations of Bowie. I was delighted to find I was wrong. Bowie feels like a musical experience (perhaps one with headphones, or in a listening booth, as the nature of silent reading is one of solitude), an experience that Critchley enjoyed composing and producing. It feels like an experience proffered with the intent of both enjoyment and wisdom (like music). There are theories here, but no heavy theses weight down this little pocket-sized book. You can take it into the water, and still float. Critchley rediscovers Bowie as he writes, each song invoked, a Proustian madeleine.

Memory. Is not realism. And like the characters Bowie performs, Crtichley goes right to the heart of fakery and the potential pitfall of conflating the performer with the man, life with film. Critchley writes about the lyrics of “Hunky Dory”: “The conflation of life with a movie conspires with the trope of repetition to evoke a melancholic sense of being both bored and trapped” (24). Critchley gets to the Warholian art of things: inauthenticity: “The ironic self-awareness of the artist and their audience can only be that of their inauthenticity, repeated at increasingly conscious levels. Bowie repeatedly mobilizes this Warholian aesthetic” (23).

In Warholian and Beckettian fashion, there is much ado about nothing. Seriously. Bowie makes a fine stage brother to Critchley’s beloved Hamlet. He makes an astute utterer of the absurd, as when he would perform Jacques Brel’s ballad “My Death”: “now my death is more that just a sad song…Da da da da da da da da da” (153). Da da, ha ha. Critchley here brings in the laugh, Beckett’s risus purus, “the pure laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh” (152). Like Lucky’s “quaquaquaqua” in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—the Latin gibberish that may or may not mean—Bowie is hyper aware of what he is conveying. 

Critchley is divine with words (as is evidenced in his many books and essays on philosophy, art, aesthetics, et al). Though the tone is lighter and the path is personal/historical in Bowie, Crichley’s word wit is still at full strength. He smatters puns and homonyms, such as “bowie knife,” “hamlet,” and “the beaten generation.” When discussing the cover of Bowie’s album for Diamond Dogs, where “Bowie is stretched out, half-Great Dane, half-human,” (78) he invokes the Prince of Denmark, and evokes the majestic air that surrounds Bowie. Critchley manages to get away with this cleverness, which verges on warranting a “bud ump bump” at times.

The marrow of Bowie consists in what Bowie is saying/singing. We respond to the lyrics as the music inviscerates us. For Bowie was a master of refining words, sound and visuals, and alchemizing them on stage.

From stage to film set, Bowie leaps with little effort into the world of filmic love, though Critchley only mentions Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth as a means to Thomas Jerome Newton, another persona of Bowie’s. He does not digress into Bowie’s other film roles. Critchley brilliantly (re)mixes Welles’ F for Fake; Von Trier’s Melancholia; Weir’s The Truman Show; Antonioni’s The Passenger; and Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine—there is a lot of film (sq.) footage in this little biblion—with Heidegger, Nietzsche, Pound, nothing and nihilism. DJ Critchley’s a master of crossfading, even beat juggling the “episodic blips” of Bowie.

About halfway through Bowie, Critchley gets to poetry. He gets all the way to Celan. The pulse(ation) here becomes even stronger when he cites Celan’s The Meridian, the speech given on the occasion of his acceptance of the 1960 Büchner Prize:

… It is homage to the majesty of the absurd which bespeaks the presence of human beings ...

Critchley’s response is this:

Poetry is a step, an act of freedom taken in relation to a world defined by the majesty absurd, a human world … My only real thought about Bowie is that his art is also such a step. It sets us free in relation to a civilization that is petrified and dead.

Qua. Because it is in the capacity of yearning (a chapter unto itself) that we see the dystopian elements of this world and seek the utopian—“[Bowie’s music] is a desperate attempt to overcome solitude and find some kind of connection” (133). We can connect the dots of Bowie and think “Station to Station” might be connected to the suicide of Bowie’s brother and/or the series of art works on Good Friday and that it is all of it about love and that Critchley admits when he went to university, “I learned to pretend I didn’t love Bowie as much as I did” (111), but pretending not to love and loving are separated by an iota and Critchley has accomplished what Bowie himself successfully did in his lyrics when inspired by Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique: “[Bowie’s] lyrics become much more fragmentary, imagistic, and modernist. Bowie’s words become synecdoches, parts that convey wholes but also the holes in those wholes” (143–144): Critchley’s Bowie is a synecdoche of Bowie. Some of the glam has been stripped away, the face paint removed, but Critchley’s not pretending anymore.

Michaela Mullin
Nomadic Press 
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a Media and Communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.