Can You Hear Me Major Tom? Ctd.

I find myself really rather annoyed by the, I suppose inevitable, emergence of moralistic mentions of gayness in connection with David Bowie, which so far have taken three forms. First, of course the Westboro Baptists have to weigh in. I wouldn’t even take note of this were it not for Bowie’s lifelong preoccupation with Christianity, and spiritual seeking in general. When I learned that they were hoping to find something to picket in connection with him, I tweeted to them a link to a Youtube of Bowie’s heart-felt Christian hymn “Word on a Wing” in the futile hope that they might enjoy experiencing what the Christian sentiment of humility feels like for once. Though the Westboro Baptists’ plan to picket the funeral is mooted by the fact of a private ceremony, their attitude has found eloquent expression in Father Rutler’s ignorant, rambling, and pretentious essay at the conservative Catholic webzine The Crisis, and was sharply satirized by an Onion cartoon. But almost as bad were the secular responses of claiming that his essential nature as a politically progressive gay icon was being suppressed, or, even more hilarious, that as a straight man, we need to struggle with the question of whether he should be condemned for “cultural appropriation” or not. It may seem strange, but I don’t find these three different responses all that different from one another, and find it hard not to disdain them all. All three think that standing in moral judgment is the most important thing in the world, certainly more important than art, and that the most important thing we can do with sexuality is judge it from a moral perspective. I find myself torn between just sighing “oh for fuck’s sake” (which seems an almost literally apt curse) or urging these folks to relax and go get laid. Or read some Nietzsche and learn what it means to stand on their own two feet for a change. Bowie was the anti-essentialist par excellence, and he always did the most difficult thing, which was to refuse to be trapped in other people’s definitions and conceptual categories, to refuse to seek permission to be whoever he needed to be at any particular point in time. Yes, he explored his sexuality when he was young. He also explored cocaine, and a lot of other things. But he was fundamentally an artist, not a moralist. He was really every thing he said he was at each point in time that he said it; properly understood, there was no contradiction between his one time desire to flirt with the objectifying male gaze and champion our now dying outsider gay culture, at another time to say that it was a misunderstanding to define him as being about a desire for sex with men, and at yet another time to seek pleasure, comfort, and companionship (I believe the word here is “love”?) in the arms of, and at the side of, a black woman. (To see these trivial responses through my eyes, imagine if all three of them were instead about his alleged essential nature as a miscegenist.) When I see all these various folks with their self-righteous obsessions trying to tackle and limit him, I can’t help but think of Jerzy Kosinski’s idea of the “painted bird” that the other birds in all innocence try to peck to death. Bowie had the courage to be himself at all times, and the adventurousness to keep becoming new things, and a part of that was the ability to regard whatever he was interested in doing and being at any given time as far more important than what other people thought. As Berkeley Breathed’s Steve Dallas, hilariously dolled up as Ziggy Stardust, said this morning: deal with it twinkle toes.

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

12507256_10208601067605657_643250472282739489_nI haven’t slept. I want to try to write up some sort of account that can explain why some people are reacting this way to the people who are not reacting this way. I will say that there is this line that comes to mind, from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X (paraphrasing): “he was our shining prince.” It was not primarily about liking the music and the other things he did, though of course we were fanatics for them. He was one of the great personalities “fit to stand the gaze of millions” (as Stanley Cavell once said of Cary Grant). But rather than being a man who “carries the holiday in his eye,” Bowie’s magnetism was born of a confidence that braved a broken landscape within, a confidence that anything, no matter how dreadful or undermining, could be transformed into something meaningful and pleasurable, because this particular center of consciousness in the world thought itself supremely worthy of existing, regardless of what it was conscious of. That confidence underlay a tremendous artistic fertility and ambition, a tremendous restlessness, the central achievement of which was to take Modernism in the arts and make it popular, expressive, and accessible, thus giving the lie to the thesis that Modernism has to be elitist or fraudulent. For many of us, Bowie’s restlessness was educational, and we learned about all sorts of developments in art and music and literature just because he had become enormously excited by them and mentioned them, whether it was ambient music, or German Expressionism, or William S. Burroughs, or something else. He is the only pop star to have two of his albums transformed into successful classical symphonies by one of our leading composers, and the only pop star who had a museum show retrospective, not about his paintings, but about his very existence. From the beginning he conveyed a sense of vulnerability and alienation that on some level we all possess just by virtue of being human, and transformed it into a sense of dignity and importance deriving from our awareness of that very vulnerability. For someone who seldom acted, he had a handful of the most iconic moments in cinema of our time, whether it was as the stranded extraterrestrial who quietly explains that he misses his children, the army major who triumphs over the madness of war and its ethos with a kiss, or the weary Roman governor condemning “just another Jewish politician” to die on a cross. Though the press always characterized him as endlessly mutable, appropriative, and false, he always seemed to me to be essentially the same, always hiding in plain sight, always himself… and his existence seemed a kind of continual triumph over an underlying and imperishable sadness that is perhaps the only truly rational response to a world such as this. There will never be another like him.

David Bowie, 1947-2016