The first album I ever purchased was David Bowie’s 1973 album Changes. I was 13. I have remained an ardent fan ever since and influenced by Bowie in many domains of life. I wrote this shortly after David Bowie’s death. I have been thinking about this video a lot lately, so I have decided to share this again. It is my stab at a Jungian interpretation of something so profoundly symbolic, and so connected to the entirety of Bowie’s persona, and is ultimately is an expression of his Self, his final attempt at individuation.
In reading a review of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, in the New Yorker, I was struck by the writer’s assertion that the imagery of Blackstar exemplifies Bowie’s typical “willingness to embrace meaninglessness” in the sense that imagery and narratives stylishly shocking and/or erotic but are fragmentary in the sense that they extract a sensibility from a would-be narrative, but are ultimately a post-modern exploration of linguistic and imagistic signifiers with no real reference back to any narrative. The author respectfully asserts that Blackstar is more of this same exploration of fragmentation. When the article was released, the author was unaware that in a few days, Bowie would be gone and that the doors of radical reinterpretation of the imagery would open wide. In fact, in a postscript, the author so much as acknowledges this necessity of re-assessment, and finds evidence of the images expressing Bowie’s attempt to “bridge life and death”. Nonetheless, the writer holds to his assertion that Bowie’s “struggled to articulate the human struggle to articulate”, as if Bowie has some difficulty in being coherent.
Bowie’s cryptic language and imagery could be construed as stylish and compelling, but ultimately fragmentary and meaningless, and indeed the writer of the article asserts, “It was rare for Bowie to embrace clear meaning”. However, “clear meaning” and “meaninglessness” are not necessarily opposed. I have always sensed that what Bowie has been able to do within the particular stylistic and narrative concepts of each album is to create fantasy worlds with their own suppositions and values, of which the strange references and phrasing are snippets of the experience, narrative and impressions of the players in their dystopian or dreamscape worlds, and as such, there is a coherence to his narrative in terms of that world. This coherence-in-context compares in a sense to the language and imagery of Clockwork Orange which Bowie has indicated as an early influence and whose language he does use in a track on the album.
Shortly before Bowie’s death, I had finally finished Jung’s “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”. Needless to say (as with most people who tackle any volume of the Collected works) this endeavor had a profound and assuredly permanent impact on my awareness, and I could not help but notice the strikingly mythological symbolism in the video and lyrics of the title track of the album, Blackstar. My own impression was that is was probably the most meaningful and possibly the most personal entry into Bowie’s long catalog of dramatic self-utilizing representational imagery. In the track Blackstar, I believe Bowie connects with one of the most profound experiences existence – personally and necessarily confronting the nature of death. In doing so, he explores its visceral and transcendent natures in powerfully symbolic language and image that is classically mythological in content; or an expression, if you will, of the collective unconscious.
As always, and again, in Blackstar Bowie establishes a world in which he is the protagonist of a fantasy drama in an alternate, but parallel world. The video begins with as shot of what any Bowie fan is probably going to agree is the space suit of Major Tom, bearing the “smiley face” patch, a symbol of era he was established as Bowie’s avatar. It is the story of Major Tom after his death. Through an unknown, mystical or ritualistic circumstance, the Major’s skeleton is separated and his skull is preserved and bejeweled. The skeleton body discarded and makes its way to a Black Star, where the implication is it will be immolated. The skull, preserved in Tom’s suit falls/is sent to ground on a planet discovered/collected by a female, cat-tailed humanoid resident of that planet, who immediately acknowledges its Messianic significance and transports it to her city, possibly to a castle on the hill, the “Villa of Ormen”, where a candle has been burning for all eternity. Later, in the narrative, a priestess uses the skull as a in a ritual of transformation of a group of female inhabitants.
In Jungian terms, the decapitation and separation of head from body symbolizes the separation of the base from the transcendent. The head is the “heaven of the body” and therefore the “heavenly stuff” is separated from the earthly. The earthly body will be reduced to “ashes” in the black star. Blackness symbolizes a return to the unconscious or the primordial – to the void. The blackness will later represent death in the video, and death is one of the most powerful implications of black in all symbolism. The skull is not only preserved, but is elevated to that which can transform. In alchemy, by which Jung was profoundly influenced, the philosopher’s stone is the substance that can transform base metals into gold – in the psychology of transformation, the fragmented person into the whole self. This is the jewel-encrusted skull of Major Tom. It is the ritual totem that is used as the catalyst for spiritual transformation.
In the Villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle which is an eternal light, but which is precious and must be earned and therefore is protected and hidden from common access up high in a castle. As the world of Black Star has no sun, this eternal candle may serve as well as the symbolic sun. The “Villa of Ormen” is the center of the world, as in the city Jerusalem. It is the heart of the planet and within that heart is the eternal light, gold, life – the attributes that are alchemically attributed to the sun. The black Star again is death of both body and spirit and will figure prominently in the second narrative. It is the counterpart to the start. Bowie sings hauntingly of the “solitary candle – and in the center of it all – your eyes”; eyes through which streams the light of consciousness; consciousness that is indeed “in the center of it all”. Consciousness is life.
A second, much less linear narrative is established in tandem and using much of the same symbolism, concerning what seems to be a series of impressions and vignettes which I see as expressing Bowie’s internal processing of his death. Bowie is directly the protagonist in these images. In this more dream-like or “active imagination” scenario, Bowie engages in a transformative process in a dark attic, through whose rafters shine a heavenly light. He is also a purveyor of “the word” in a shoddy black paperback emblazoned with a black star to a group of 3 vulnerable-looking younger people, a thin, white boy, a dark boy, and a girl with mousy hair. Later in this symbolic tableau, a shaman-like creature with a hooked arm menaces three decrepit and monstrous scarecrows that are crucified in a field.
In the attic, a man guides an unsettling dance of the three young people. There is a pale young man, (conceivably his persona), a dark man (his shadow) and a young woman (his anima). Bowie is blindfolded. He can no longer see. The light is not coming in to consciousness. There are buttons on his bandages, as if to say that his body, his eyes, are becoming a thing of the past – dead things. It is time for him to transform. The shaking is a symbol of transformation, of shaking off the material body. Death, at least in the material sense, called “Blackstar” has begun to overtake him. Death, with his dark sense of humor, taunts Bowie that his worldly possessions will be taken away – his passport, his drugs, his shoes – all symbols of aspects of material life and activity. Blackstar asserts, “I got game”. Of course he does, he will eventually take us all.
Bowie’s professed ambivalence toward religion, but obvious cultural possession over him (is this not the case for us all?), is expressed by his holding aloft of the shoddy little paperback that nonetheless projects well-thumbed with meaning. We have seen this gesture before, in the famous image of Chairman Mao holding aloft the red book, which likely was Bowie’s artistic influence, but most archetypically as Moses holding up the commandments. This is the “word” of God, and the book acts as a vehicle between heaven and earth. Via this book will come integration of Bowie and his “parts of the Self”, whose shadows are cast on the “sky”, an obvious backdrop, also symbolizing like the buttons-for-eyes the diminishment of things that are of prime importance in life, but which death will take as it ushers out the material world.
At the time Bowie created this video, he is obviously wrestling with the two paradoxical notions of death: that it is entirely transcendent and can yield an integration into the eternal, but that for the time being it is vile and taunting. The agonized scarecrows in the worst aspects of suffering death, crucified in a the dark primordial underworld of Chaos. Christ, crucified, is a symbol of the ultimate suffering – and are these crucified figures not imagistic metaphors of the excruciating attack by the slow decay of cancer? There is also an element of what Jung would call “the trickster” in shaman/sheep-like menace, taunting and terrorizing the inhabitants of the underworld with his hook for an arm. This also seems to represent the brutal force of disease that claws at us, bringing us down evermore. Yet, the central scarecrow taunts the creature right back by sticking out his tongue – a gesture of defiance in the face of the inevitable. It is said Bowie worked as hard as ever during the last months of his illness, and as all know, he bravely kept his illness from the public.
Why is it that the skull of Major Tom, an ordinary, fallible human being who who suffered from heroin addiction and possibly depression at one point in his life (we know Major Tom’s a junkie…hitting an all time low) transformed into the highest substance of transformation, the philosopher’s stone, after his death? As far as those of us who loved, are influenced by, and indeed “worshipped” Bowie we are concerned, the most poignant symbolism of the video. People who were influenced by Bowie, often were profoundly influenced. The author of the New Yorker review asserts Bowie “struggled to articulate” his message as an artist. I do not think he struggled at all. Bowie had the uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious and express it, perhaps not rationally, but on a much deeper level. That is what makes Bowie’s “meaningless” imagery so compelling – and this is an ability that great artists possess; a category to which Bowie has belonged from the beginning . It is indeed the output of his “jewel encrusted” creative mind, which is the philosopher’s stone for the artistic transformation of a generation of young people who felt somehow deeply connected to something unconventional and otherworldly. Bowie, if the response to his death is any indication, has himself become an archetype.